It's a peculiar place, not too far off Interstate 20 in Southwest Dallas, and few Dallasites even know it exists. You drive up the steep driveway, to the top of a hill that used to be the highest point in Dallas County (how it lost that status isn't quite clear; haven't seen any volcanoes or glaciers around here recently). You get out and wander around this quiet place, and pretty soon you're hit with a breathtaking, panoramic view of everything west of the city: from Joe Pool Lake, to undeveloped prairie, to the stacked peaks of brand-new McMansions in the valley below. Not a noise is heard on a hot, windless day except for the muffled drone of I-20. This is "Prayer Mountain," on the grounds of Mountain Creek Community Church, and "anyone from any church" can come here to pray and meditate on the grounds, which include wooden decks overlooking the cliff, picnic tables, a fountain and forest trails. They much prefer, though, that you direct your prayers to "the Lord." Prayer Mountain is open in the evening, too, so people coming home from work can unload their worries here. The best view in Dallas is at its loveliest at sunset, or when there's a full moon. And there are people who live on the grounds and watch the facility, so shake off the urban jitters for a moment and relax.
We've said it before on Unfair Park: To look at a painting by Jennifer Morgan is to be embraced by the artist herself. The incredibly prolific painter has an insane knack for putting herself into each of her works. And neither that skill, nor her raw talent, has gone anywhere despite a transformation in Morgan's work. Over the last year or so, her style has changed from more whimsical, feminine caricatures into a softer, more thoughtful, nature-driven series titled "We're All Pink." The female influence is still present in her newest works, but the images are brave and bold, even more empowered by their natural and animalistic themes. Layer after layer, Morgan paints emotion and energy onto the canvas to create what might appear to be just a moose paired with cherry blossoms or a great ape but is really a very personal portrait. We imagine it's that gentle, almost maternal cradle of the paintbrush that moves through the eyes of her subjects and wraps itself around the viewer of each of her paintings.
Dallas World Aquarium
You need stats? We got stats: 85,000 gallons of "saltwater with marine life from around the world." A 22,000-gallon tunnel that allows you "to experience a panoramic view of reef life." Three webcams placed in with the manatees, otters and exotic birds. The eight-story Mundo Maya "immersion exhibit that takes visitors from the waters of the Yucatan's Gulf coast to the highland rainforests." Got that? What the kids dig most are the sharks and Mexican food and the waterfall. And being on the inside, where it always feels like a tropical jungle, no matter the weather. Last we looked there was supposed to be an aquarium at Fair Park; last we looked, it was as small as your neighbor's fish tank and half as clean. Till Dallas gets something along the lines of, oh, the Shedd in Chicago, this is about as good as it gets.
When you're a kid who just wants to rock, there is absolutely nothing worse than a guitar (or whatever instrument) instructor who wants to make you learn their favorite songs. In fact, we'd probably be crazy-skilled on the piano if we hadn't had to learn "Big Swiss Horn" and "Heart and Soul" instead of songs that truly inspired us. That sort of thing is why musician Marc Solomon created his school of rock. It's one that employs energetic, exciting teachers (you'll most likely have seen them in bands about town) who actually listen to the goals of their young pupils. It's one that teaches the Who, Springsteen, Black Sabbath and the worthy vestiges of new rock. It's also one that's grown so popular that Solomon and wife/business partner Mary Armstrong had to move to a larger space earlier this year. Zounds-Sounds offers rock shows instead of stuffy recitals and, even cooler, a chance for parents to throw up the rock horns right next to, or in support of, their kids.
A good portrait is hard to come by. Olan Mills and its smoky, swirly backdrops just don't cut it. No, environmental portraiture and a more natural expression is so the way to go. A person hanging out in normal surroundings will interact with the camera, not act for it. Conversely, a bride seated on a swing set, or someplace more casual and less stressful than a studio setting, will relax. These are techniques used by a good photographer. But Hal Samples is a great photographer. Though known mostly for gallery showings, Samples also shoots commissioned portraiture. But "commissioned" doesn't mean "less artful." What makes Samples so successful is his ability to expose the inner beauty, the spirit and the soul of his subjects. A combination of childlike enthusiasm and natural charisma exudes from the man, putting subjects--from small children to stuffy businessmen--instantly at ease. It is said that certain indigenous peoples believed a camera could steal one's soul. In this case, Hal Samples doesn't steal your soul with his camera; he coaxes it out of hiding and shows you what it looks like.
The Old Monk
A night out at the bar. You've been knockin' back a Stella or 10 with your gang, maybe playing a little game of "Who Would You Rather?" (Ugh, Barbara Walters.) You're starting to get a little hungry. But you're smart, and you didn't drive to the bar, which means no trip to Jack in the Box for some grease pocket tacos. Better hope you're at the Old Monk, 'cause the Knox-Henderson staple kills every other burger-and-fries-servin' drinking establishment in town when it comes to bar food. Two words: cheese plate. Floppy, frozen french fries don't stand a chance against the Five Counties cheddar, tasty deli meats and tiny little gherkins on the Old Monk plate. If you want heftier fare, the Guinness beef stew will tide you over till you wake up from that hangover tomorrow around noon. And the sandwiches? Oh yes, the sandwiches are big enough for two jonesin' drinkers to feel plenty satisfied. After you've felt the love of the Old Monk, you'll never look at a 2 a.m. hamburger quite the same way. Or ever again.
State Fair of Texas
Come on, do you really want anyone you know to see you gobbling down that third Fletcher's Corny Dog? That's just one of many reasons to wander the vast fairgrounds unaccompanied. It's so much more fun to hit the State Fair on your own than to have to constantly be negotiating: New cars or Polynesian dancers? The cover band at the Chevy Stage or a stroll over to the midway to lose a few dollars whacking moles with a mallet? If you're doing it on your own, you can improvise. Go ahead and try a deep-fried Oreo, then stop in and watch dogs chase Frisbees. Pet the sheep in the livestock pens and feel a catch in your throat as the farm kids cry when they have to auction their prize hogs off to the sausage makers. And if you've never ridden the Texas Star Ferris wheel, well, you never know who you might meet up there in the sky if you're flying solo. Corny, but doggone it, it's so great a place to explore, it's worth walking around the whole place one more time to see what you've missed
Sue Ellen's
This longtime staple and only bar geared toward the ladies on the Cedar Springs strip ranks right up there with old faves JR's and Station 4. What sets this apart from the others is its friendly, welcoming style to anyone who walks through the door. Gay or straight, a good time is hard to miss with DJs spinning radio-friendly tunes for the dance floor or the huge outdoor patio that plays host to live bands throughout the week. While the boys know how to dance, the girls know how to rock. And if one band isn't enough, their occasional mini music fests, Breastfest and GirlJam, are daylong outings worth the time. Kudos to Sue Ellen's for offering a live music scene, albeit a small one, to the Oak Lawn area.
Lakewood Landing
Smoky dive kinda mood? You need Etta James. Worn-in C&W? George Jones and Willie Nelson. Burger and board games? Maybe some Pretenders or even Iggy Pop (hey, it's motivating). Barstool hook-up, football halftime or de-stressing happy hour. The sweet, sweet golden juke at the Landing has any mood covered. Hell, in our opinion, any machine with "Stop the Wedding," "He Stopped Loving Her Today" and the ubiquitous feel-good of "Solsbury Hill" runs the gamut of anything we could possibly be feeling. That, in a bar that always makes us feel at home, makes for one helluva perfect destination.
Go ahead, you buttoned-down, 9-to-5, bourgeois automatons, buy your coffee from The Man at Starbucks. Dig it: We free-spirited alternative types will use our java dollars to stick it to the man at Standard & Pours, a cool, locally owned shop in the basement at Southside on Lamar lofts. There, we can dream of a proletarian nirvana whilst perusing the pages of...The Wall Street Journal? OK, so maybe you won't find a copy of the commie-friendly People's Weekly World there. But your hard-earned dollars will help a small business in its legal battle with financial services giant Standard & Poor's, which sued the shop recently over alleged trademark infringement. You can take your stand while sitting on comfy couches, grooving to the occasional live music performance, sipping a silky-smooth house blend of joe and munching on a variety of delicious baked treats. Hey, even a revolutionary likes brownies--even the hashless kind. Besides, you can check on how your 401-K is doing while you strategize against The System.

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