Friday, May 31, 2013

Southwest Inn fire

The statistics were against me on this one: two months after getting traffic-gridlocked in the Space Cleaners fire in Clear Lake, I was traveling with a couple of business associates in Sharpstown just as the Southwest Inn fire was building. 
At this point shortly after noon today, the thing was just starting to escalate wildly and the Southwest Freeway was still moving close to posted speeds.  That mobility was short-lived. 

We went to a business lunch on Hillcroft assuming that the whole thing would be under control by the time we were finished.  But it got worse - a lot worse.  The Southwest Freeway was made impassable by the wall of intense smoke.  I've never seen anything like this in my entire life. 
Anyway, a tragic day in Houston's history with four firefighters reported as perishing and others injured in this horrible event.  I join with the rest of greater Houston in wishing condolences to the families affected by this tragedy.   

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Another found dog

If you live in the vicinity of Centerpointe and you lost this dog today, please contact either the POA or the undersigned to claim.  POA link is in the left hand column of this blog. 
I sure wish we had a centralized lost / found animal clearinghouse in this area, because pet reunification is a common goal around here... 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Front yard vegetable garden

As recently as one year ago, this blog post title would have been even more incendiary than my recent political commentary.  It has amazed me just how quickly Americans have about-faced their historical horror and begun embracing the idea of growing crops in the front yards of their urban and suburban homes.  What had been radical is now not even new, and the only bleeding edge I can lay claim to is the finger that I cut pulling weeds this morning.
I kid you not - there's even a book explaining how to work your munchie magic amongst driveway, car, front walkway, and foundation beds.

Downsampled screengrab from Amazon featuring the cover of "The Edible Front Yard" by Ivette Soler (aka The Germinatrix on Twitter).   
I had been planning to start growing edibles in my front yard for years, but the time and effort required to develop my back yard made me slow out of the blocks on this one.  Even now that I'm non-radical, I thought I'd show you the very beginnings of how this front yard crop-raising trend can be made to work in greater Houston, because we have our own special set of challenges here.
Here's Phase 1 of our front food foray.  I will do a separate step-by-step post on the construction of this thing, but from the outline in the grass sod, you can get a first feel for the finessing of it.  This location originally had a standard builder-installed curved foundation planting bed ("mulch bed") constructed on grade, which is strongly sloped here for lot drainage.  We tore out that bed and installed the rectilinear stacked stone garden you see above. We had to infill the previously-curved bed footprint with grass sod patches which will grow to become fully blended with the main lawn in a few more weeks. 

The main feature that distinguishes this kind of approach from a typical raised bed is that this is installed on the level rather than following the lot grade.  Leveling the stone allows for successful stacking and makes the right-hand edge of the bed appear to "dive into" the earth, because that part of the lawn is at higher elevation.  It becomes a semi-isolated garden into which specialized soils can then be placed. 
It doesn't look much like a vegetable garden, does it?  I am in full agreement with Outlaw Garden's "Ten rules for growing vegetables in the front yard".  Many of those rules pertain to esthetics.  The front-yard vegetable gardeners who have made national and international news for fighting with their HOA or municipal authorities (sometimes to the point of being threatened with incarceration) usually were the ones who made the mistake of making their gardens look less sophisticated than they arguably ought to have been.  People don't generally argue with attractive property investments, even when they're unconventional.  A few of my neighbors asked how much this Phase 1 creation cost us.  I replied, "It cost a friggin' fortune because that rare stone you see there had to be transported from Oklahoma." And then I quote them the cost figure and they reply, "Oh, that was worth it - I would pay that much."  (More on the cost issues in a later post when I talk about the build specs). 

As Outlaw Garden notes, one of the golden rules of front-yard vegetable gardening is to include ornamentals.  That makes the thing look less utilitarian and more decorative.
Lantana from Maas Nursery.  The poor thing lived three years in a pot before this location was finally ready to receive it. 
I forget the name, but I really like this plant.  It flowers almost continually.  I got it from Faith's Garden Shed Naturally about two years ago and it, too, lived in a pot until I could get it transplanted here. 
No matter how small the budget for a front-yard garden, everyone can afford marigolds.  This hardy annual can generally be bought at big-box home improvement stores for less than one dollar per plant. 
So with the larger lantana and the what's-his-name ornamentals anchoring both ends of the garden and the smaller marigolds interspersed for good measure, here are the edibles that I'm starting off with:
African blue basil. We do eat it, but it will also make stunning flowers when it gets larger. 
Sweet basil in the purple variety (it probably has a variant name but I can't recall it), which doesn't stand out very well against the similarly-colored mulch.  We eat basil by the fistful. 
Lavender.  Love the smell, even if I'm not inclined to eat it (some people are). 
Sweet potatoes.  Suburbanites sometimes use these as ornamentals, either as ground cover or as climbing vines, and often don't even bother to harvest the potatoes. 
Crookneck squash.  If it grows to be as large as the one in our back yard, I'll have a management issue on my hands.  But I'll also have more calabaza con puerco.   
Cowpeas (black-eyed peas).  I haven't grown these before, so this is an experimental year for these. 
So there you have a glimpse of Phase 1.  More to follow in future posts. 
It's not as easy as it looks, I'm afraid, nor is it as inexpensive as I'd like to be.  But according to my neighbors, it was well worth it. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

LC versus the good ol' USA, Part 2

Where is the labor coming from to build the new League City Public Safety Building
Artist's rendition as screengrabbed from this concept PDF hosted on the League City website
It's a 71,000-square foot facility costing somewhere between $24 million and $33 million, depending on which updated scope or source you access on the internet.  That represents a lot of labor.  My understanding from reading the news reports is that the contract for that facility was awarded using the CM At Risk method which is not the same as competitive low bid, but it does invoke cost guarantees and presumably competitive costing has to enter into the equation at some level.  It's also my understanding from reading news reports that a significant fraction of construction workers in Texas are illegal aliens.

Screengrabbed from this NPR piece which was published just last month. 
Half of them, eh?  OK, let's accept that figure at face value as an industry-wide average.  Now, what does that mean for the Public Safety Building?  Is that an average project, or is there a foolproof administrative mechanism in place to verify that each and every one of its contracted and sub-contracted and sub-sub-contracted laborers will actually be in the United States legally? 

It's not a rhetorical question, and the reason why I ask is as follows.  After I published "League City versus the United States of America", I got strongly-opinionated and terse feedback through a diversity of channels alleging that League City's pursuit of assembled day laborers had nothing to do with targeting a particular racial or ethnic group, and everything to do with mounting frustration over the federal government's general lack of immigration enforcement.  It was yet another case of a local government making a statement by effectively taking matters into their own hands - nothing more. 

OK, let's parse that interpretation.  If League City is authentically committed to the upholding of immigration laws to the extreme of being sued for its self-assigned involvement with same, then it follows that we should expect to see that noble principle manifesting across the board, right?   If the whole thing really was about opposing illegal immigration, League City should be doubly motivated to oppose it within their own house, especially within their own police station, given that it was the police who were tasked with this alleged de facto enforcement activity.  Otherwise, wouldn't the whole situation simply amount to the ultimate in hypocrisy? 

I'm not implying that the new police station is being built using illegal labor somewhere in the contracting hierarchy.  I'm asking the question because I genuinely don't know the answer, but I sure would like to.  What awesome potential this has for some fearless investigative journalism. 
Public Safety Building, construction in progress, view looking southeast from West Walker Street. 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

League City versus the United States of America

GCDN has reported on a recent legal judgment in which the City of League City was found guilty of violating the First Amendment rights of laborers soliciting work within its city limits. 
The Constitution of the United States wasn't written yesterday, and by this time, there are are plenty of established case law and administrative precedents for how to compromise and balance individual vs. collective rights.  But the City of League City arguably doesn't have the best track record when it comes to learning by example, or even by blunt suggestion.  In this case, litigation has succeeded where other methods failed.  Litigation that you, the taxpayer, paid for, of course. 

Sign photo from Wikipedia.  
Houston Chronicle covered the same ruling in some depth in a feature titled "Case proves Constitution works for day laborers, too". 

Unfortunately, both of those stories are behind the paywall, and I can't find where the Associated Press or any other major outlet has picked up on this yet.  You'd think they would - after all, it's not every day that a branch of American government is found guilty of violating the Constitutional rights of its own citizens, for crying out loud.  HuffpostNYTCNNSlate? Anyone??  A few weeks ago, pretty much all of you covered the "if it bleeds, it leads" story of the West, Texas explosion ad nauseum, but the League City implosion which is far more nauseating?  Not sufficiently titillating?? 
If any of you people decide to get off your journalistic duffs and actually investigate this story, you'll probably want to get some live-action feedback from persons directly affected by the Court ruling.  You might want to toddle on down to the area south of the intersection of FM 518 and Texas Avenue, which is one of the very few local places where affected persons can still be found, albeit in reduced numbers. 

Image screengrabbed from Googlemaps ground view. 
The predicament in which the declining state of the mainstream news media (MSM) has placed us grows more dire by the day.  Without question, this is one of our most important local stories of the year, but given the haphazard and decentralized way in which League City residents tend to receive news, you can bet that most of them don't have access to this information.  That snippet at the bottom of my blog where I quote Thomas Jefferson as saying "When the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe"?  Let's me make a profound understatement in saying that I'm worried. 

So the MSM is MIA, but you can read a synopsis of the litigation here.  Basically, what happened is that the Court found the City of League City guilty of interfering with the rights of local laborers who solicit work by presenting themselves at public locations on a daily basis.  This case centered on Constitutional rights and had nothing to do with the immigration status of any of those persons - that's a different legal question.  And the result was not surprising because case law has confirmed time and time again that all persons in this country have Constitutional rights.  
Whether or not anyone likes this provision is not the point.  The point is that the provision exists.

Screengrabbed from this University of Nebraska website (actually a subpage produced by the College of Journalism and Mass Communications... hmmm, maybe they would like to report on this story...). 
In editorializing, I can go further than either the pay-throttled and outright-silent MSM.  Here is my personal prediction regarding the City of League City's relationship with its minority populations: 

Unless something fundamentally changes, this litigation is not going to be where the problem ends. 

This will not be the last time League City steps on its own d*ck in this regard - and you'll please excuse me for using such an impolite metaphor, but I really can't think of any other succinct way to deliver that perspective complete with all the nuances that it warrants.   

The fact that the workers whose Constitutional rights were violated were overwhelmingly if not exclusively Hispanic is not an accident.  I've seen surprising insensitivity toward people of color here.  I've seen this city, as a municipal entity, fail to weigh the perspectives of minority populations.  I haven't blogged about that to date in part because I was trying to approach the issue via the aforesaid blunt suggestion route rather than the public castigation route, but the US District Court has now sort of beat me to the punch line in that regard. 

What I've seen happen here is not racism or discrimination in an ouvert or intentional sense, but is more along the lines of pure ignorance that there might be people living in this city whose skin is not white, people whose personal histories and world views and resulting perceptions might have evolved in a very different manner from those of a stereotypical WASPy suburbanite.
Racially, we as a proverbial bedroom community don't exactly mirror the great state in which we find ourselves, but - surprise! - almost one third of this city self-identifies with some ethnicity other than Caucasian. 

Information distilled to improve readability from this US Census site.   
If you need evidence consistent with my insensitivity assertion above, just take a look at the aftermath-to-date of this present litigation.  Has League City issued any kind of usual-and-customary PR recognizing that maybe it ought to re-examine how it deals with racial minorities?  Is there a "we might need to reflect on how we do business" or "we never intended to offend any particular racial group" thread running through any of this?  Not that I can see.  I can find no such position statement on its website or in recent City-generated email blasts.  And nothing responsive in the news reporting except for this statement which I've reproduced from Chris Gonzalez's piece, a statement which appears to have been issued with respect to the potential for a legal appeal rather than as an acknowledgement of any larger principle of human decency: 

“At this point, the city’s legal counsel is still reviewing the decision and its ramification,” said League City spokeswoman Kristi Wyatt.

Surely League City can muster the depth and sensitivity to do better than that, even if they privately don't believe that they should be so obligated. 

If instead it had been some of these guys sitting on private-property wooden fences near the intersection of Main Street and Texas Avenue, sitting at the edges of public rights of way and beckoning to cars that pass by, there wouldn't likely have been any harassment by the City of League City, would there? 

This group of fence-beckoners tends to be very white, and we automatically recognize that white people have a Constitutional right to deliver their message regardless of what country they happen to be from or whether they're even in the United States legally. 

Not so much for brown people, though.  Not yet, anyway. 

Photo screengrabbed from this Wikipedia JPG

Friday, May 24, 2013

Hell on wheels, holiday-style

It's the Memorial Day weekend, so you can literally bet your life that you're going to see some hair-raising dangerous stunts unfolding on the Gulf Freeway as many folks make a mad dash for Galveston.  Here is one such example that I had the great gift of experiencing as I was driving home from a business meeting inside The Loop late this afternoon.
Talk about a proverbial Kodak moment, eh?  Framed by the League City Parkway exit sign to boot.  Gulf Freeway southbound, about 4 p.m. this afternoon. 

I mentioned in previous posts that I often drive with a DSLR in my lap, so that I can simply raise the camera and do a point-and-shoot without taking my eyes off the road. 
Do you recall that I published a post recently titled "Where to buy a mattress in Houston"?  Well, this right here, folks, is how not to bring one home. 
Many people grossly underestimate the wind forces associated with highway speeds.  No planar object is ever going to remain tied to your roof-rack unless you've secured it very, very well, because the lift forces are absolutely enormous in scenarios such as this.  Here, the mattress is acting as a double-bed-sized sail that is on the verge of separating from the automobile and assuming its own airborne trajectory.  Which of course could easily become a fatal proposition if it caused a crash involving other cars in the freeway lanes behind it. 

And yes, as a matter of fact, I think I will leave your license plate visible in this photo, thank you very much.  Next time, spend the fifty bucks it takes to get the danged thing delivered, OK?   
I was exiting League City Parkway, so I pulled in front of this vehicle and took this pic with the camera pointed toward my rear view mirror.  Look at that view and invoke your common sense: imagine the air pushing against this thing at 60 or 70 mph.  It has zero chance of staying on that car without extremely strong restraints and without being prevented from "catching wind" like this. 
The driver wisely exited League City Parkway behind me (he's in the center of these three lanes), presumably in order to better secure this thing.  This pic taken into my rear view mirror is blurry, but you can see that, at the reduced traffic speed of the feeder, the mattress has settled back down onto the roof of that car.
Have a great weekend, and remember - don't do anything stupid like what's shown above.  And don't drink and drive.
I had another business meeting yesterday in Galveston, and I snapped this pic just before the Highway 6 / Hitchcock exit.  This tally will certainly rise by the end of this holiday weekend, flying mattresses or no mattresses. 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The bittersweet un-bitter

Why are none of our back-yard vegetables as bitter tasting as store-bought, mass-produced vegetables? 
I'm asking about you.  A white onion I harvested two days ago. 
This is the biggest un-answered question that we have after three growing seasons.  There's a very clear difference in the taste quality, and it seems to persist across every species and variant. 
  •  Is it because mass-produced vegetables lose so much freshness by the time they get to mainstream grocery store shelves?
  • Is it because they are fed chemical fertilizers rather than being grown in naturalized conditions?
  • Is it because they retain chemical pesticide residues that are affecting the taste?
  • Does the handling and processing impart a taste?
  • Some other reason?
  • Some combination of the above?
 I don't know the answers.  I do know that I have a snowball's chance in hell of getting my husband to eat store-bought vegetables for that reason - because they are often so bitter-tasting.  I never noticed the extent of it until he pointed it out to me, and until we had this home-grown contrast to compare with.

Anyway, in transitioning from bitter to bittersweet, Tuesday was Onion Harvest Day and I'm always a little bit bummed about that because it becomes like the vegetable version of empty nest syndrome.

I grew three cultivars this year - red, white, and yellow (Texas 1015).  But one should not get emotionally attached to one's onion crop, because its days in the sun are strictly limited. 
It pains me to liberate them from the ground, but when onion tops start falling over like this, it's time to remove them no matter what size they've attained.  Otherwise, the bulbs will go into decline, and the bulb is the un-bitter part that you want to cook.  And maybe incorporate into many dishes than can be frozen and enjoyed for months to come
Moreso than other vegetables, onions seem to develop their own individual personalities or something. 
Muppet-like.  One of each variant with mop-top roots. 
The harvest this year is not nearly as large as it will be next year.  This I hereby resolve. 
Yeah, I'm that quintessential crazy old lady down the street who talks to her plants.  Maybe that's why they're not bitter. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Squash those gardening fears

I meet sooo many folks who would love to garden, but then faced with the idea of actually doing it, they get this wistful look on their faces and conclude that it's not possible for them. 
Yellow will be my theme color today.

Microsoft clip art.
My advice if you fall into this category: Start very small and see if it really does become a practice that you feel motivated to integrate into your lifestyle.  One of my neighbors did this last year, growing just a few fruits and vegetables.  This year, he had five cubic yards of soil delivered to his house (that's a lot, by the way), so that he could expand his personal gardening empire.  "All these years we've been married, I never knew he was like this," his wife said to me, shaking her head in disbelief and wonder at his newly-manifesting passion. 

If you fall into this category of gardening uncertainty, understand that, on the upper Texas coast, the top two obstacles to overcome are poor soil quality and the need for a strict (almost daily) watering regime, especially during the mean season (i.e., summer). 

There's also a third obstacle that daunts many suburban would-be gardeners, and the nature of that obstacle can take folks by surprise: what to do with the vegetables once they are harvested.  Mainstream America has moved so far in the direction of consuming mostly-processed foods that many people no longer know how to prepare an arm-load of fresh vegetables.  With this in mind, I'm going to show you an example of what to do in this fun photo series below.

In this post from last month, I talked about overcoming the soil obstacle, and I showed this stock tank with its newly-amended soils and newly-planted seedlings, including that squash plant out in front.  This was my first attempt at growing squash. 

Fast forward about six weeks: 
There's the same view a few days ago.  The good news is that my first ever squash plant "took".  The bad news is that it "took" to an extreme of becoming six feet in diameter, squashing every other seedling in the tank, but let me not get onto that tangent. 
Awwww, how cute!!  Squash blossoms are beautiful, but what they produce is even better. 
Incidentally, HCMG has reported some pollination problems with local squash and other vegetables (screengrab from their Facebook timeline), due to an apparent problem with bee shortages.  We have observed no shortages of bees in Centerpointe - in fact, quite the opposite, and my squash pollinated nicely, as this pic shows:
This is what became of that same flower - but what to do with such a strange looking object??  It looks like a giant yellow tektite or something. (Humorous factoid: Blogger knows how to auto-correct the spelling of the profoundly obscure word "tektite".  That's impressive.)

It's not a tektite - it's a crook-neck squash, but when hanging over the side of a stock tank, it will grow straight under its own weight, rather than having a crooked neck. 

Any seasoned gardeners looking at this particular photo will be thinking, "Ya screwed up, girlie!" but I will get to that in a minute. 
Here's another one with more conventional form.  Incidentally, those ants streaming into the adjacent blossom weren't doing any harm to the plant.  They just wanted the sweet nectar. 
So here's the first two harvested squash.  I named them Fat Man and Little Boy, a reference that some folks might not appreciate as objectively as I do.  Little Boy is actually not "little" compared to Fat Man, but he's more skinny, which is why the comparison seemed to fit, at least in a relative sense. 
OK, so now it's time to do something with these squash.  And anything to do with vegetables usually begins with a base layer of onions. 
In another stock tank, I grow a couple of onion varieties  in abundance.  If you grow these, you have to consume them (or at least cut them back) on an ongoing basis, or they'll just grow to take over the place and will also get tough and useless in the process. 
So I hacked off a couple of handfuls of onions...
"Let's put 'im in a pot" to cop the famous line from the movie Cold Mountain, a line from the breathtaking performance that won an Academy Award for fellow Houstonian Renee Zellweger

The "pot" in my case is always a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok, the rationale for which you can read here
Meanwhile, as the onions were cooking, I peeled and chopped Fat Man, and he turned out to be perfect, as non-nuclear squash go. 
"Ya screwed up, girlie!"

Yeah, I did, but it was my first attempt at growing squash, so I was unsure of when to harvest them.  Fat Man was great, but Little Boy proved to be already too old to use productively.  Squash toughen with advanced age, and them's not good eatin'.  See the hard outer rind around the outside, and the well-formed seeds inside?  This one had to go into the compost pile. 

But that was OK because I just went out and harvested three more baby squash from that massive plant, and they were tender and good. 

Now, I would be thrilled to use humanely-raised pork in a dish like this, but buying that on short notice in Clear Lake is near impossible.  So this is just mainstream tenderloin that I used instead. 
That goes in next (diced first), for browning. 
This is a crucial step: I know of no other spice that will work in this dish as well as Spice Lady's Mexican Mix.  She still doesn't seem to have a web site, but her stuff is sold at Clear Lake Shores Farmers Market and her address is listed as 609 Bradford Avenue #104, Kemah Texas and phone 832-563-6908. 
You'll notice that I'm not using measurements here.  You can look at the wok and deduce the ratios for the most part - the ingredient proportions don't have to be precise.  I was making a large volume of this dish, so I probably used four tablespoons of Mexican Mix.

I also added a dash of chipotle pepper and another dash of ground cumin and about two tablespoons of salt. 
After the meat got a bit browned, I threw in two diced potatoes. 
Then Fat Man and his three young siblings. 
Then I added 1.5 small cans of organic diced tomatoes. 

I also peeled and diced a few of this kind of squash which is generally referred to as "calabaza" or Mexican squash.  The dish would have been fine without it, but I had it in my refrigerator, so might as well use it. 

This dish I'm presenting here is a variant on a traditional Mexican stew that I've heard called "calabaza y puerco" or "calabaza con puerco", which basically just means pork and squash. 

Cover and simmer for about a half an hour, stirring every five to ten minutes so that the vegetables cook evenly. 

The tomatoes and squash will de-water with cooking, combining with the pork juices and spices to create a fantastic broth.  Brothy dishes usually freeze well because the broth excludes the air pockets that can lead to degradation (for more info on that, see this post titled "Healthy freezer-based diet management strategy"). 
Serve with pinto beans and corn tortillas. 
The moment of truth.  This stuff was fan-freakin'-tastic!!!

And look at the nutrition:  lean pork loin, with very little fat on it.  I used a bit of olive oil to sauté the green onions, so only healthy fat there.  And really, the balance of this meal is grains, legumes, and vegetables.  Pretty healthy stuff. 
So there's one idea for using back-yard squash harvested before they reach a tektite stage of toughness.  Happy eatin'!