My wife's parents stopped by a couple weeks ago, and spent the weekend with us. They have stayed with us several times now, and at this point we've used up about all of the easy tourist hotspots in the area, so we pondered as to where we could bring them. We would have been perfectly happy to just hang out with them at home, but as home is still just a 2 bedroom apt., the closeness of the space is a fairly potent factor in getting us all out and about.
We ended up taking them to several stops on the Azalea Festival trail. The AF trail is a spring tradition in the River Oaks section of town. When the azaleas are blooming, it's supposedly pretty fantastic.
We started at Bayou Bend, the home of socialite and philanthropist Ima Hogg. It’s a manor home and large landscaped grounds. We paid our admission fees, and headed on in. The grounds are awash in azaleas….when they’re blooming.
Unfortunately they were not.
Nada. Maybe one or two blossoms here or there.
All I could think was, with all apologies to Ian Malcolm similar query about dinosaurs and rides, “eventually you plan to have AZALEAS at your azalea festival, right?”.
We felt very bad that we couldn’t show them the place in its full “glory”, but luckily the magnolias (?) were in bloom and the grounds are still nice to see.
We did manage to find a FEW azaleas poking their heads out, as well as some of the odd trappings of uber-wealth.
We also stopped to marvel at some of the micro-changes in elevation near the bayou, topography in general being a rarity in Houston.
(with some ultra-wide angle distortion…sorry Kate…)
We hit a couple of the other stops on the Azalea trail, including the “Rienzi” manor home, and some private houses.
The private houses were really kind of a bust. Not much in the way of gardens. It felt more like an exercise in “Come see how immaculate and well appointed my home is, so that I may feed on your envy”. This sign pretty much summed up the underlying tension between the society set and the rest of us trogdolytes:
We ate at the legendary Hobbit Café, after which we spotted what seemed like a statistical oddity….a Delorean (rare in and of itself) with handicapped plates.
Hey, Doc’s getting old. He can’t sashay through time quite like he used to.
The next day we took a leisurely stroll through the park. I had been discussing bird identification with Kate’s mom when nature saw fit to present me with a challenge. Across the sky suddenly flew not one, or two, but what looked to be three different raptors, all in tight formation. It turned out to be a red-tailed hawk, red-shouldered hawk, and large American crow (not a raptor) all harrying each other for airspace. Seeing two of these together, especially a crow and a raptor, is common, but all three was pretty impressive.
Later on, Kate’s dad and I went for a long hike in a nearby flood control district project area, and generally messed with photographing bits of the wild.
On Sunday, we took them to the Menil gallery, one of our favorite little art places. The Menil is a small collection, with a fantastic room of antiquities. Their modern/surrealist offerings don’t do much for me, but it’s just a really great space. As we came up the walkway we were shocked to see what looked, very convincingly, like a small boy sitting on the roof.
As it turned out, it was just part of a special exhibition, though the boy is no less creepy zoomed in.
They also happen to feature two installations by one of my favorite Earth/Land Art artists. So, in full realization of the irony of making art from other people’s art, here’s my take one of the Heizer pieces.
All in all it was a great visit. We miss having family around so it’s always great when they swing into town.
 Personally, I'm not a big fan of River Oaks. River Oaks is the sort of place that makes Martha Stewart look downright ghetto (even pre-jail time). The Houston paper has a “Society” section, mostly to serve these people. River Oaks is the sort of place that, if it were characters in an 80’s teen movie, would be the spoiled rich camp/school that the heroic plucky band of guys- and girls-next door have to work hard to beat, and who get their comeuppance in the end. It’s an exercise in a very peculiar alchemy, turning oil into plastic-fantastic opulent manor homes, each guarded by its own perfectly coiffed southern belle stepford wife. I’m fairly sure it’s unofficial motto is “River Oaks: Let Them Eat Cake”.
 If one is in to such things. To me, it mostly looks like the same uber-rich enclave it always looks like, but with some flowers.
 It’s ironic to me that that title is reserved almost exclusively for the ultra-rich. I have known many real philanthropists who have never been called as such, and couldn’t afford to drive through River Oaks. Apparently the word means something different than I think it does. Based on the “Society” page, being a philanthropist seems to involve going to a lot of fancy parties for fashionable causes (parties to which the causes’ benefitees are rarely invited) and having your picture taken with other over-buffed pretty rich people. Personally, as wonderful as it is for part of their money (earned on the rest of our backs) to go to charity, I don’t find a lot to admire in someone who has more money than they can ever spend, sharing a little with the “little people”. It verges on being somewhat condescending, as if the solution to all our problems can only be a well financially lubricated dues ex machina descending down from their ethereal realm of oil-sodden wealth. But I digress.
 Yes, she really was named Ima Hogg, though the popular legend of a sister named Ura is untrue. I good naturedly asked one of the society women “docents” on the tour if they had any inkling of the unfortunate homophonic (I’m a Hog) nature of the name. They looked at me as if I was some godless heathen peasant who had just urinated in the flower pot, and coldly said that no, it was a perfectly normal name for the time, and that I was free to move along to the next room. There was an unsettling degree of hero worship going on.
 Which weren’t cheap, especially considering the lack of azaleas. The Azalea “Trail” is apparently paved with money.
 Which, blooming from stately trees, I secretly think are far superior to the overly-domesticated pastel azaleas bushes.
 The hobbit café is a local landmark. It really is reminiscint of a hobbit hole, and has a 70’s hobbit feel, rather than a peter Jackson hobbit feel. Regardless, this is a café that loves it some hobbits. And without a hint of irony. All the food items have Tolkein names. Every wall was strewn with hobbit related paraphernalia. One almost expected to find awkward youth playing dungeons and dragons in every corner.
 Well, I and my mother in law strolled. Kate and her Dad ran. A waste of perfectly good nature if you ask me.
 http://www.menil.org/ As with most of the arts in Houston, it’s the product of mega-rich folk turning their hoardings over to the public to secure their legacy. Not that collecting, that odd human fascination, is their trait alone. They just do it on a vast scale.
 Alternatively, one could say, they bore me to death. Call me uncultured, call me insensitive, and I’ll counter that I’m simply not afraid to tell the Emperor he’s butt naked. Abstract art can be easy to appreciate, even if it doesn’t emotionally do anything for me. But surrealist stuff, to the greater degree, tends to neither impress me intellectually or emotionally. It just seems pretentious; I don’t particularly buy the argument that the deconstruction of art is itself art. To me it’s often a fairly meaningless private game. “Clever” art rarely is. As an example, the special exhibition consisted mainly of odd arrangement of taxidermied animals, including a dead horse with INRI on a sign with it. Oh how very shocking. You get all the attention now. Zzzzzz. To me, someone like Magritte is wholly different because the art still has an art componenet. He’s still a skilled painter, even if it’s of bowler hated odd men. Dominion of Light is one of my all time faves.
 Michael Heizer, though they are not by far his best pieces.