Friday, March 20, 2015

Houston - 2

Catching Up.

I went home for about 10 days in March, primarily for some dr. appointments, to work on our tax return, and to respond to letter from State Farm that unless we removed or seriously trimmed some trees near our house, they would cancel our home insurance.  Trip didn't go as planned, however, because on my intended departure day the Albq airport was closed because of snow so I had to go a couple of days later, too late to make it to my five-year colonoscopy check.  Darn.

I had a chance to visit our two New Mexico "church homes."  St. John's UMC puts on Friday Fish Dinners during Lent.  It draws a very large crowd from the community.  I went and in addition to a fine dinner got the chance to visit many friends and update them on Susie's situation.  Then, on Sunday, I went to Sunday School and the service at Mountainside UMC, near our Cedar Crest home.  Again, lots of encouragement and support for Susie. 

Oh, both churches have quilting groups and both have provided Susie a prayer quilt.  Here's a picture.

Interesting how the colors match.
Speaking of fine dinners, the second night home our neighbors, Kathy and Britt Wilson, had me over for a steak dinner.  Even sent some leftovers home with me for another meal.  Kathy's mother, who lives in Albq, has also been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  Unfortunately, it's at a more advanced stage than Susie's.  We've been comparing notes and were seeing many of the same doctors before we came to Houston.

Another purpose of the trip was to get our car and drive it back to Houston.  I left last Tuesday and drove as far as Abilene, where friends, Elsie and Key Ray, live.  En route I surprised son Jeff Hinkle when I stopped at his Albertson's store in Clovis to say Hi. 

Ten years ago this month we were with the Rays on a Mediterranean cruise.  I taught a semester at McMurry University in Abilene in 2005 and we had just been in town a couple of weeks when we met them at a church lunch, had a pleasant visit, learned about this cruise, and in a few days decided to join them on the cruise, which fortunately was happening during McMurry's spring break.  A year later we took an Alaskan cruise with them and other Abilene friends.  Tuesday, we had a very good visit (they continue to do a lot of international traveling - off to Poland next month) and another fine meal. 

I got an early start Wednesday morning to drive to Houston.  Needed to get there before daughter Mandi's late afternoon departure. Daughter Heidi stayed with Susie the first week I was gone and Mandi took her place when she left.  I had checked a map - an old-fashioned one on paper that folds up, as opposed to an electronic GPS map - and saw that TX highway 36 angles almost on a straight line from Abilene to Houston - just short of 400 miles.   I thought that if any road deserves the title, Heart of Texas, this is it.  It doesn't have that title, but it is distinctive enough to have its own Wikipedia entry.  Here's a map copied from Wikipedia.  Note how Hwy 36 cuts right through the Dallas-San Antonio-Houston triangle which gave rise to SW Airlines. 

The highway goes through nice ranch land and friendly-looking towns.  I didn't stop for much but gas and junk food, but I did brake for one County Courthouse.


Also, caught a glimpse of this building with several guys working at replacing the roof and turned around and went back for a picture.  A sign said this was a Preserve America project.

Later, as I drove by a prison I saw this group of prisoners vigorously hoeing the ground -- getting ready for spring gardening?  I couldn't tell if they were chained together, but it looked like it.  Note the prison guards on horseback.  The old west lives in the heart of Texas.


Got to Houston in early afternoon and when Susie and Mandi got home from an IHOP breakfast,
we unloaded the car and Mandi soon left for the airport.  Which brings us to another rental car saga.

Heidi had made a reservation with Dollar and when we met her at the airport we picked up the car and she and I were listed as drivers.  At the same time we dropped off our Enterprise rental car.  It was all well-choreographed.  Then, a week later, when Heidi left and Mandi arrived, Mandi signed on as a driver for the same car.  All this was properly done according to Dollar's instructions. 

Well, the phone rang.  Mandi was still at Dollar.  The Dollar personnel were all upset and claimed the windshield would have to be replaced.  In fact, they were rude about it -- You're gonna pay, lady (because we had not signed up for the overpriced extra insurance they always offer).  We hadn't noticed any such damage.  (I'll add here that when we picked up the car, Dollar was extremely slow getting a car out for us to take, so our inspection might have been rushed.)  At any rate, through Mandi I provided Dollar with my car insurance info.  She filled out a report saying Houston is full of major potholes (that's a fact) that could have caused the damage, through no fault of our own.  One Dollar rep told her that if you pay us $250, we won't send the claim to your insurance company.  We didn't bite.  All in all, a pretty sleazy operation.  

A couple of days later I reviewed our bill (Mandi emailed us a copy) and saw that we had been charged for being five days late in returning the car.  That wasn't true because I had our statement showing the period of our rental.  I tried two or three times to call the Dollar Office at Houston Hobby airport to get an explanation, but never got out of voice mail purgatory ("your call is very important to us, blah blah blah ..." ).  A few hours after the last attempt I got email from Dollar with a customer satisfaction survey.  I unloaded, but have not received any response from Dollar.  I called our insurance agent and she assured me that I was not likely to be sent a bill and that State Farm would not jack up our premium over this.

So, bad experiences with Advantage and Dollar; good experience with Enterprise.  Lessons learned.

I brought a laptop computer when we first came to Houston.  It has sufficed, but when I needed to print something I had to go to the apartment's business office, about a block away and two stories up.  So, while in Albq I bought a very basic printer at Costco and brought it to Houston (Goin' back to Houston, Houston, ...).  Tried to set it up on Thursday and it wouldn't work - the menu screen didn't show the options it should and the print cartridge tray wouldn't move into position so you could install the cartridges.  So, on Friday we found a Houston Costco and went there to see if the printer was returnable here.  It was.  (I didn't bring it with me at the time because I wanted to go to Best Buy and look at a functioning printer like ours - which we did.)  That confirmed that ours was defective; it wasn't just my ineptness that kept it from working.  Saturday I took printer no. 1 back to Costco for a refund, then went to Best Buy where I bought a smaller and cheaper printer no.2.   Got it hooked up, including a wireless link to the computer, and it's working.  Now, wasn't that interesting.  Life as a displaced person, Houston style.

Sunday, we attended service at St. Paul's United Methodist Church - an old, large, cathedral sort of downtown church. 

Here are out- and inside pictures.

Pretty dramatic choir loft and organ pipes.

We went to the third of three morning services.  (The church website characterizes all their services as "traditional worship for contemporary people.")  Attendance was good and the choir and organ were spectacular.  Good Lenten sermon, too.  But, it was a more formal service than we're inclined toward.  E.g., anthem was in German - music by Bach.  Susie said it felt Episcopalian.  Also, nobody asked if we were visiting, etc.  Not complaining, just reporting. 

Monday was RodeoHouston.  Along with a livestock show and a midway full of rides and food booths -- you want something deep fried, we got it -- this is a State Fair sized endeavor.  With lots of walking and steps to climb in the stadium, just to see a rodeo, this wouldn't be Susie's thing in the best of situations.  I will note, though, that we've both been doing some walking and strength and flexibility exercises together for the sake of fitness. 

I chose Monday because the rodeo entertainer was Dierks Bentley.  Susie said, and Mandi confirmed, that we saw him in a small bluegrass club in Nashville several years ago and that he was regarded then as a rising star - and now he is one.  I listened to a couple of his youtube recordings and liked his easy style - just him and his guitar. 

I went early hoping (it's an easy walk from our apartment to the arena) to see some cutting horse competitions, but was too late for that, so I ate.  Started with a funnel-cake- hot-fudge sundae:

And topped that off with a New Braunfels bratwurst.  Ready to Rodeo, now.

Here's the opening parade - riders, wagons, and fire engines.

The competition in all events is run like a Jeopardy tournament.  Leading scorers in each round move on to another round.   This means that on any given night there is only a small number of contestants in each event, so things move pretty quickly.  There was one NM cowboy in one of the riding events who did well. 

I watched the rodeo from a lower tier of seats, but for the entertainment, and the view (and because the rightful owners of the seats I was sitting in kept showing up), I went up to the sixth level.  Here's what it looks like from way up there. 

Next week the South Regional of the NCAA basketball tournament (March Madness) will be played here.  Hope they can sweep enough of that dirt out of the way to put up a couple of goals.

Next came the entertainment, starting with fireworks.

In this sort of a venue a guy and his guitar are just not enough.  Bentley was accompanied by a piercingly loud electrified band.  I left after a couple of numbers.

This report is getting a little long, but I want to mention one more stop on our sampling of what Houston has to offer. 

In an article about Houston's mayor that I chanced across, I read that Houston (from a Washington Post article) ranked high on lists of best places to live.  In 2012, it was named the nation's" coolest city" by Forbes -- stylish housing developments, theater scene, world-class museums.  Also, Food and Wine magazine said it is: "America's newest capital of great food." So, we've got a lot to sample from.

Tuesday we went to the movies to see "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"  We'd seen the first "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" and enjoyed it a lot, so now the sequel.  The hotel of interest is in India, owned an operated by an energetic young entrepreneur, and occupied by a bunch of British senior citizens, such as Maggie Smith and Judi Dench.  (Side note.  At least four times we've been approached while eating out by people who asked Susie, Excuse me, are you Judi Dench?)

Where we went turned out to be part of the entertainment - the classic, old River Oaks Theatre, built in 1940.  We climbed the stairs to a second-floor small theatre to see the show.  Maybe a dozen people were there for the 4:40 showing.  At first we were a bit distracted by a couple of people seeming to compete with each other on how loudly they enjoyed the movie.  I swear one of them cackled at a couple of Maggie Smith lines before she said them.  She must have seen the show before, or else thought she was watching Downton Abbey. 

River Oaks is the ritziest of Houston residential areas (I would not call it a "housing development".  We think the Bushes live there.)  We drove through it and the estates and houses are pretty awesome. 
 Susie, though, is outraged that people spend their money this way.  My feeble explanations of trickledown economics and how those people pay big taxes for the common good don't sway her.  I remember this line from one long-ago oil-bust period: "The only thing in Houston that can put a deposit on a Mercedes now is a pigeon."  Which reminds me of Gary Johnson's line in 2012, I think:) "My neighbor's dog has provided more shovel-ready jobs than Obama's stimulus funding."

Enough potty-jokes!

We drove around looking for somewhere to eat, unsuccessfully, until I remembered that in our Costco/Best Buy travels we had driven by a "Ragin' Cajun" restaurant, right by the railroad track.  Looked like a fine "Food and Wine" sort of place to me.  So, that's where we went.  Buckets of crawfish seemed to be the entrĂ©e of choice--Lots of shuckin, lickin' and smackin'.  I went for shrimp and catfish.  Susie opted for grilled chicken breasts. Outstanding, I'd say.

Wednesday we went shopping.

Thursday was Susie's third chemo treatment. 
Today, Friday, is another day of March Madness.
We'll be in touch.
Susie and Rob

Tuesday, March 17, 2015


Most of you readers of this blog have been receiving email from us about Susie's diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and our trip to the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for an extended stay for her treatment and eventually surgery.  We will continue those reports, but we'll use this blog to report on the non-medical aspects of this trip.  We considered bringing Tuzigoot down here to live in, so this would be a true Tuzigoot Journal, but have decided against it. 

Our first week we stayed in a Residence Inn.  We thought at first that surgery might be done fairly soon, so had not made long-term plans.  After Susie's medical team recommended and we agreed to multi-month chemotherapy and radiation stages to control and diminish the amount of malignancy, followed by surgery, we decided we needed an apartment.  MDA has an attached extended-stay facility that people had recommended to us, but it had no vacancies right away.  The MDA Travel office put us in touch with an apartment management firm they work with and we picked an apartment that turned out to be just across the street from the Residence Inn, and just over a mile from MDA.  Here's a link.  So far we've been driving to MDA, but there is a free shuttle service as back-up. 

The Domain is four stories of apartments, wrapped around a parking garage and two patio areas, one with a swimming pool.  Our apt is about as far from our parking spot as possible, so moving day we made numerous long trips hauling our belongings from garage to apt.  One good move we had made was to exchange our compact rental car for a mini-van: more space, less money, it turns out.  (I didn't check prices on larger cars when we made a reservation. On-line rentals for mini-vans, at least for Enterprise cars, rent at substantially lesser rates than compacts.  Too much to think of in a short time is my excuse.)  Here are a couple of apartment photos.

GO LOBOS!  oops.

The apartment is right next to a Walgreen's and a short block from a Krogers and another block from a Super Target, plus a wide variety of chain restaurants, so it's all very handy.  The Walgreen's clerks and pharmacists are getting to know us quite well.  One clerk and I tell each other, "See you tomorrow," as I check out with another bag of essentials.

Texas Medical Center is HUGE.  Here is the picture you find on-line when you google it.  When we first saw this skyline, I thought it was downtown Houston.  Found out later that downtown is behind this scene.  Nearly all of the buildings in this photo are hospitals, clinics, research labs, medical schools, and more.

 Here's a short summary from the Medical Center website:

Texas Medical Center is the largest life sciences destination in the world. With 106,000 employees, 50,000 life science students, and thousands of volunteers and patient visits, over 160,000 people visit Texas Medical Center each day. Over the course of the year, we welcome over 7.2 million visitors.

Here are some building close-ups.

This is the building we've spent most of our time in.

Son, Jeff Hinkle, was here for Susie's first chemo treatment last week.  On Friday we drove to Galveston.  Some scenes:

That's Pleasure Pier

Cargo ships waiting in the Houston Ship Channel.

I've already described in our e-mail reports our search in Channelview, TX, for the house that Susie, Jeff, Manny, and Mandi lived in, and rental car problems, so I'm not going to cover that here.  Will skip ahead to the a fresher second installment.

Susie and Rob