Sunday, March 29, 2009

Leapin' lizards! Gators in Texas!

Today we took advantage of sunny, brisk conditions and headed for the great outdoors at Brazos Bend State Park, about an hour south of us in Needville. We were attracted to the park's description in our Houston hiking book, which described its numerous alligator habitants. Alligators in Texas? Really? RE-ally? Driving there along "farm-to-market" roads, past ranches and longhorn cattle, I was dubious. But, soon after arriving, a brief walk (down a short pier -- phew!) led us to 8 alligators!

Numerous signs implored us to be on our best, most cautious behavior. I was alarmed at the number of people who brought along their dogs and/or small children. But according to the visitor's center, there have yet to be any alligator-related fatalities in the state of Texas.

"Wild alligators are smart. They did better than you on the SAT!"

We began a running tally of the number of gators we saw as we walked the 1-mile-long trail around this lake. Almost 2 dozen by the time we reached that observation tower in the distance!

Here is a view of the lake from the observation tower...

Garrett has a great eye for gators. He always sees them first! I think it's a sixth sense he has. We suspect that the alligator is his "spirit animal." Maybe my spirit animal and I need to get our eyes checked.

I named this fella (on the left) "Bubba." He was at least 8 feet long and very, very close to us!

All in all, after spending a couple hours at the park, we spotted THIRTY-SEVEN alligators! This is a personal record. I think if the two of us added up all of the gators we have seen in our lifetimes, we might get this number... but outside of our trip to Gatorland, this was the greatest density of gators we've experienced! Sorry, Florida! Maybe we'll have to make a special trip to the Everglades this summer to make things right.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

It's been weighing on my mind...

As an addendum to the previous post about being fat in America, a couple news stories of note:
  • "Researchers from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM), Boston Medical Center Harvard University, and Cambridge Health Alliance found that more than 75 percent of emergency responder candidates for fire and ambulance services in Massachusetts are either overweight or obese." (courtesy of Harvard Science)
  • One-third of the nation's military-age youth are unable to serve because they are overweight by army standards --even though the army's definition of "overweight" is more generous than that of the CDC. (courtesy of NPR)

If an emergency responder is at a higher risk for a cardiovascular problem and/or a musculoskeletal injury, the safety of the community he serves is also compromised. Similarly, the safety of troops and those whom they protect is compromised when soldiers are in poor health. Then we must ask, "Who watches the Watchmen?" Concerned health care providers, I hope.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Rodeo Houston

After enjoying a restful spring break in Orlando, I returned to Houston ready to put on my [proverbial] cowgirl boots and take in the Texan cultural phenomenon that is the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

Garrett, his parents, and I took the Metrorail (no horses available) down the street to Reliant Stadium. It was a first for everyone, and we were pleasantly surprised that no one ever checked our tickets. A knowledgeable Texan who rode frequently told us she had only been asked once before to show a ticket. We wondered how the city affords to run this form of public transportation. On this day we saw someone with a clicker counting the people getting off the train at Reliant, so maybe the Rodeo has to [pitch]fork over some moola later.

We first ventured to the building housing the Livestock Show. It was a huge convention hall featuring what seemed like hundreds of booths. Merchandise booths were selling hats, boots, belts, jackets, jewelry, horse trailers, pick-up trucks, spas, Texas-shaped waffle irons, boomerangs, and of course John Deere tractors.

Aliens were a recurring theme, with exhibits set up by both NASA and the Texas Border Patrol. Visitors could get their photo taken while sitting atop a real longhorn cow, or their handwriting analyzed by a machine that looked like it was created by Professor Frink of "The Simpsons."

The real highlight, though, was the livestock. And believe you me, you could smell 'em before you could see 'em! First we admired the cattle being vacuumed.

Then it was on to the rabbit showcase. The French Lop variety is as big as a dog! Yowzah!

Isn't it Easter on its way?

After we had had our fill of animals, consumer goods, and overpriced food, it was time to mosey on over to the stadium for the rodeo! 70,000 people filed in to be entertained. Lucky for us, the "Super Series Championship Round" takes place the last weekend of the rodeo. We saw the top ten cowboys in each of the rodeo's categories: tie-down roping, bareback riding, team roping, saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling, barrel racing, and bull riding. It was really impressive and really exciting! We had a good time trying to figure out the physics (how exactly does one ride a horse, rope a calf, and tie 3 of its legs in under 4 seconds?), the scoring of spurring techniques (some events are time-based, while others are graded "artistically"), and the insanity of it all (how can you not break your body riding a buckin' bull?). Because we were sitting so far up, I didn't get any good photos of the action, but I highly recommend visiting your local rodeo for a thrilling experience.
As the rodeo staff prepared the arena for the evening's concert, two youth events helped to pass the time. The first was the Calf Scramble, in which a group of calves was set loose, and young adolescents (Future Farmers of America) chased, tackled, and tied them. It reminded me of a day in the classroom.

Next was "Mutton Bustin'." This has to be, hands-down, the most entertaining thing I have ever witnessed. Unsuspecting children (aged 4-6) were dressed in helmets and padding, and then placed on excited sheep. As the sheep raced out of its cage, the plucky kiddo had to hold on for dear life and try to stay on! Watch an exciting YouTube video of it HERE.

The night ended with a performance by Brooks & Dunn. Brooks and his moustache had laryngitis, so long-haired Dunn took the lead, singing about trucks, girls, Jesus, America, and girls. I think Garrett's parents enjoyed the music more than we did, but Garrett and I were happy to recognize a couple songs at the end -- the hits "My Maria" and "Boot Scootin' Boogie" (ah! flashbacks to middle school country line dancing classes!). We were dazzled and slightly frightened by the indoor pyrotechnic display. Yeehaw!

That's what's new in Texas! And, oh yes, due to local construction, we now have a Porta Potty in our front yard! Now I feel like Bob Dylan. I'd write more -- but when you gotta go, you gotta go!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

America's Fattest Cities

After visiting the Cheesecake Factory the other night, I got into a conversation with some teachers at school about obesity in America. There was a debate about whether Houston or Dallas was the fattest city in the country. I decided to Google it myself and discovered that Men's Fitness magazine has rated Houston at #6 this year, behind Miami, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Las Vegas, and New York City. Congratulations!

According to Men's Fitness, "donuts are 132% more popular here than average," and we have "the 6th highest number of donut outlets per capita." (Is Boston #1?) I can tell you that about twice a month, one of my students brings in delicious glazed donuts for his lovely co-teachers. He is one of my favorites, needless to say.

But surely there is something greater at play here than donuts? My hypothesis is that poverty rates and obesity rates are closely related (though again I must state that I am not the statistician of the household). After some census-searching, this is what I found:
  • According to the U.S. Census, in 2007, the national poverty rate was 12.5%. For Hispanics, the rate was 21.5%.

  • For the city of Houston, the poverty rate was somewhere between 16-21%, depending on which study or graph you read. The Hispanic population of Houston is 41.87%.

I'm not saying that all Hispanic people are poor and/or fat, but I think we can agree that when you are poor it is very difficult to afford healthy food. If you work long hours at a low-paying job, it is also probably very difficult to find time to go jogging or the extra money to afford a gym membership. The obsession with being fit is very class-specific.

The American Community Survey lists the national poverty rate at 13.3%. Here are the poverty rates it gives for the other cities:

  • Miami (Congressional District 18) - 17.7%

  • Oklahoma City - 17.4%
  • San Antonio - 18.3%
  • Las Vegas - 11.4%
  • New York City - 18.9%

Okay, Las Vegas is the outlier there. But otherwise, there seems to be a correlation between poverty and obesity.

The fittest city in America, Colorado Springs (Congressional District 5), has a poverty rate of 10.7%, and Minneapolis (Hennepin County) at #2 has a poverty rate of 10.8%.

On an interesting sidenote, 44 out of 61 Texas communities have poverty levels above the national average.

Garrett tells me there are already studies out there that discuss poverty and obesity rates. But sometimes I like to play Malcolm Gladwell and figure it out for myself!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Diagnosis: Diagnostician

Today I turned in my application for the educational diagnostician program that the Houston school district offers. It's a two-year program that would teach me how to administer tests and evaluations to students being referred for special education services. It's an opportunity to work one-on-one with children in a variety of schools, and to be a part of multidisciplinary teams that evaluate students and determine what supports they need. I should be called in for an interview within the next month. Wish me luck! I could be the next Dr. House. But in a school, not a hospital. Now where is that cane of mine?