Saturday, August 28, 2010

Vigorous Exercises of Free Speech, and So Forth

How come an act of "censorship" (broadly defined) by the Humble Independent School District rates a page-one story in the Houston Chronicle, but a singular act of censorship (narrowly defined) by the Houston Chronicle rates ... no mention at all in the very same paper (at least that we can find)?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Five Years After, Part I

After viewing Spike Lee’s two-part follow-up to his justifiably acclaimed documentary When the Levees Broke, we must conclude that Lee is a very talented filmmaker. How else to explain the fact that we were again moved, on several different levels (including, yeah, intellectually) by Lee’s handiwork, despite the cartoonish lack of subtlety in his politics –– similar to what the filmmaker would doubtless impute to Tea Partiers –– and the occasional teeth-grinding bzzzzzz of his polemics. Not that Lee makes any pretense to two-sides-to-the-story objectivity (Correction: Apparently he does!). He’s a storyteller, not a reporter. Still, the first season of David Simon’s Treme, a fictional account of post-Katrina New Orleans, demonstrated a greater journalistic scrupulousness than Lee’s non-fictional If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise, even though Simon surely shares Lee’s somewhat unfocused and widely diffused anger ––and, hey, we must be angry, all goddamn day long ––- at what happened to New Orleans.

Houston, we should note, comes off pretty good in Lee’s latest, although the segment on the city launches off in unpromising fashion with pictures of the rodeo parade and a sign for the annual big gun show at the Brown center. The music and hue of the film both darken at that point –– to suggest, we guess, that “These peckerwoods are liable to string me and any other person of color up in the middle of the night,” but we suspect, hope, that Lee, who’s got a pretty good sense of humor, offered up these rodeo week vignettes as sly juxtaposition to what follows (if not, then he’s a big dummy).* A couple of pastors –– a black preacher who relocated from New Orleans and now leads a church in South Houston, a white guy (not Ed Young) from Second Baptist –– recall those hectic post-Katrina weeks when Houston took in who-knows-how-many hurricane refugees and, in what was surely one of this nation’s recent great moments of charity and forbearance, worked like hell to get them settled. Our alcaldesa appears in an interview on the steps of City Hall, looking like a spunky cowgirl in her Go Texan Day attire (is her name, we idly wondered, hand-tooled on the back of that belt with the gigantic buckle?) and, or so it seemed to us, slightly inflating her role in the resettlement effort (she does mention that she was called into action by the then “present mayor” or “mayor at the time,” something like that, although Bill White remains anonymous and unseen throughout the short Houston segment of Lee’s film). The mayor notes that while many New Orleanians have returned home from Houston, plenty of them, who knows how many, decided to drop anchor and have blended into the city. Lee interviews three of them in what, to us, was the most arresting part of the film’s first installment, as their comments neatly illustrated the differences between the two cities, for better or worse. One of the evacuees, a Calvin Green, or Greene, formerly of Treme, tells Lee that once he landed in Houston he decided to find him a wife, the first prerequisite being that she own a house. Next to him is home-owning now-wife, a nurse he first ran into at the Reliant Center in the days after Katrina and later re-hooked-up with, somehow. Green says his second criterion for a suitable mate was that she have good feet –– “I have a foot fetish,” he helpfully explains –– and Lee obligingly gives us a brief shot of Mrs. Green’s nicely pedicured and painted toes. I’m sorry, but Houston needs more people like Calvin Green, or Greene.

Listing more toward deeply ambivalent are Colvina “Rita” McCoy and Catherine Montana Gordon, mother and sister, respectively, of Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, who was such an engaging presence in When the Levees Broke, later landed a prominent role in Simon’s Treme (nobody, not even that “Susie” character from Curb Your Enthusiasm, does cuss-fueled spousal anger like Mrs. LeBlanc,), and opens Creek Don’t Rise stridently declaiming some Bad Poetry while wearing a Saints‘ jersey. Mses. McCoy and Gordon are living in what appears to be a very nice and comfortable brick home in Humble, and Ms. Gordon goes on at length extolling the virtues of the local school district, where, apparently for the first time, her special-needs son was able to access widely available services that apparently were not provided in New Orleans. (“Life Skills,” she says, enunciating the name of the routinely available class for special-education students. “I had never heard of Life Skills!”) Still, Ms. Gordon wishes aloud that “we could take what we have here and move it all [to NOLA],” while her moms, in a moment sure to endear her to the local chamber of commerce, avows, “I hate Humble.” This sounds churlish and ungrateful, and probably is, but we forgive:** Humble isn’t New Orleans (Humble isn’t even Houston), and Houston’s not New Orleans, and what Houston obviously lacks in NOLA’s je ne sais qoui and joie de vive*** and [insert overworked French phrase of your choice here] it makes up for in an ability to put people to work and make the trains run on time, or at least in offering Life Skills classes.

*We personally don't care about how the media "portray" Houston, but we know that many locals do, so let us note the obvious: What Spike Lee says about Houston is exponentially more influential than, say, what the Greater Houston Partnership says about Houston.
**Actually, we wouldn't want to live in Humble, either, unless somebody gave us a free house there (even then ....).
***That, at least, is the outside perception, but not, as we long-timers know, the reality. We believe it was the late philosopher manque Juke Boy Bonner (Christian name: "Weldon") who proclaimed that
Houston Is an Action Town ("We got womenfolk in the street flagging the menfolk down" ... and, as Mr. Bonner might have added, we got menfolk flagging menfolk down, etc.). As we've often noted in the past, recent and distant, you can find just about anything you want here, if you look hard enough.

We wrote it down so we wouldn’t forget: Past postings on Katrina.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Dumb Justice

Hate to be presumptuous, but we presume we’re not the only semi-regular reader of the Houston Chronicle left a tad nonplussed last Friday by the vehemence of sports hack (a redundancy, we know) Richard Justice’s full-throated, half-hysterical page-one denunciation of Roger Clemens, who, according to Justice’s weasely arms-length formulation, is destined to be “remembered as a liar and a cheat.” (Not that Justice’s calling him either.....) That, of course, is because Clemens, simply by virtue of having been indicted by a federal grand jury for denying to to some congresspeople with nothing better to do that he used steroids, is stone guilty of what his accuser, ex-cop Brian McNamee, says Clemens did. Justice rushed to judgment with no hesitation: "Even an acquittal won't get his good name back. There’s too much doubt.” Clemens' mortal sin, according to Justice, is not having himself hit in the tush with a proscribed substance but rather his lack of "contrition," his unwillingness to bow down to sports-world ayatollahs like Lil' Richard and acknowledge regret for doing something he's denied doing, repeatedly and adamantly.

We find it interesting that at the Chronicle the presumption of innocence until proven guilty extends only to Death Row inmates, long after they’ve been convicted by a jury (except for this unrepentant scuzzbucket, whose crime was so heinous and guilt so clear that he didn't rate the usual boo-hoo treatment the paper accords capital murderers), but a rich white guy like Clemens is automatically guilty by indictment. (Perhaps Justice has some empirical evidence of Clemens' guilt: Perhaps McNamee called him over and showed him the bloody gauze he purported to have saved after allegedly bangin' Clemens in the butt with steroids and HGH; perhaps Justice even witnessed the bangin' himself!) Adding to the pile-on nature of the Chronicle's coverage was this Sunday editorial wherein the writer gamely allowed that "maybe [Clemens] didn't" take steroids before quickly adding: "But plenty of people who know more about it than we do think he did." And who might this "plenty" be? Why none other than the all-knowing Richard Justice, whose "liar and a cheat" pronouncement is quoted in the editorial as if it had been inscribed on a stone and trundled down from The Mount. Apparently no other in-the-know types were handy for citation.

We are not, as we’ve noted several times in the past, a big fan or much of an admirer of Clemens (he’s no Stan the Man, is he, but who today is?), but we have no idea, no evidence at all, whether he took illegal performance-enhancing drugs or didn't (and, as we've also noted, we find the phony hand-ringing over steroid use to be not only silly but hypocritical in this, our drug-besotted society –– and we’re not talking about just the illegal ones). However, we are now rooting for his acquittal and awaiting the page-one column by Richard Justice that will follow, surely as night follows day, celebrating Roger Clemens' grit and determination and refusal to give in to his persecutors.

Here's some past postings on Clemens, et. al. They're all good: What We All Knew, and When Did We Know It?, They'll Hunt Me Down and Hang Me For My Crimes, When I Tell About My Dirty Life and Times, Precious Keepsakes of Our Fleeting Time Together, No Time for Vegans.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Be TRU to Your School, Like You Would to Your Girl (If You, Like, Had a Girl)

NOTE: Despite an almost unanimous lack of public interest in his return to the “blogosphere,” if that’s what it’s still called, Sr. Slampo has reluctantly agreed to take a temporary “hiatus” from his extended hiatus to clamber up on his wheelchair-accessible soapbox and bloviate on an issue that has pitted brother against sister and is rending the very fabric of the city: the proposed purchase of Rice University’s KTRU radio (or its frequency and transmitter, whatever) by the University of Houston. In addition to his overweening need to dictate public policy to his fellow citizens, Slampo says he hopes this exercise in what he quaintly calls “typewriting” will help expunge the chorus of the Bar-Kays’ 1967 smash hit Soulfinger from his head, where it has been in more or less continuous rotation since a chance hearing on 6-23-10. He promises an imminent return to radio silence. -- Hidalgo Hidalgo, editor emeritus and under-assistant West Coast promotion man, Slampo’s Place

We see that the University of Houston’s regents, without bothering to consult us, have voted to proceed with UH’s planned purchase of Rice University’s KTRU, thus angering tens if not dozens of 30ish and 40ish Houstonians who fondly remember Marilyn Mock’s (was that her name?) “S&M Show” on the student-run station’s heyday back in the ‘80s (or whenever). We’re busy and we know you are, too, so we’ll get right to it: This ill-advised bit of empire-building and mission creep by UH is bad. It’s bad for the city, it’s bad for both schools, and, most importantly, it’s bad for us –– that is, me, myself and moi.

Oh, we’re not exactly a regular listener –– we don’t much “listen” to anything on a regular basis, ’cept for the sound of the gently falling rain –– but 91.7 is locked into rotation on our car radio’s digital scan, after KUHF (we do listen to the NPR news shows, and the classical music for its generally calming effect, but never the tiresome Car Talk or that noisome Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me [unless Paula Poundstone gonna be on!], KPFT (where we rarely stop anymore, the wall-to-wall self-righteousness usually giving us a reflexive ear-gag), KTSU ( for the music, especially Myron), and before the couple of stations our 16 year old routinely tortures us with. We couldn’t name a show or a DJ –– OK, it appears that we once immortalized The Soul and Funk Hour in this space –– but we know we can always find something reliably interesting on KTRU, even if it’s that show in the morning (do they still have it?) where somebody reads the Chronicle for the blind (or lazy). We alight on KTRU in the hope that we will hear some obscure blues, jazz or country music or even some screamin’ punk medley to get our blood pressure up in the pre-hypertension zone, and only occasionally are we disappointed. (Yes, we know this is not to everybody’s taste, but that’s because not everybody has taste, ya dig?). So, as Ken Hoffman would put it, here’s five reasons this sale is a bad idea (although we may run out of reasons well in advance of No. 5):

1. We didn’t look this up in Wikipedia, yet, but isn’t the purpose of a college radio station (like that of a college newspaper, or college mahjong club), to teach, to give youngsters hands-on training, “real-world” type experience in running the boards or punching the right buttons or whatever labor is required at a radio station these days? Yes, we believe it is. At Rice, of course, the student deejays get the added benefit of being able to show off their deep and hard-won knowledge of, say, pre-1965 Jamaican proto-ska while routinely mangling the pronunciations of various song titles and artistes (but that’s cool, ’cause, as the Rice motto holds –– or perhaps it’s that of DeVry Business School –– Vita est pro eruditio, meaning, roughly, “It’s Good to Fuck Up Now Because Not Only Is It Humbling But That’s How You Learn.”) We do not detect much of the hand of the student, the amateur, in the production of UH's KUHF.

2. We don’t see this as doing much for Rice-UH relations (the state of which we have absolutely no knowledge of).* Perhaps the mayor, a Rice alum, will be weighing in shortly (but we hope not).

3. Why in the name of Allah and/or Sweet Jesus does UH need two frickin’ radio stations? Will that somehow elevate the school to that coveted Tier 1 status? Perhaps UH’s assembling of a veritable chain of stations –– a broadcast empire! –– will do it. Does HBU have a station, and is it for sale?

4. According to the Chronicle
KUHF CEO John Proffitt said the present station, at 88.7 FM, will switch to an all-news format and the new station, to be named KUHC (91.7), will offer classical music and arts coverage. Both stations will be affiliated with National Public Radio.
Based on the dreary local “news and talk” products pushed by KUHF and sister TV outlet Channel 8, we assume this means the addition of another snooze-inducing, irrelevant outlet to today’s challenging media local landscape, and .... more Car Talk! (sheesh).

5. We’re all out of reasons, but the previous four amount to an unassailable case that should force both institutions to see the error of their way and JUST LEAVE THINGS THE HELL ALONE (which, even here in Houston, is often times the best policy).

*With apologies to Brian Wilson and whoever else of the Beach Boys is still alive.
**Although by inclination we are more of UH person, we have no horse in this race at all. In the interest of disclosure: We were once asked to leave the grounds of Rice by a campus cop or security guard while visiting there back in ’76 or ’77, which left us sore, but later we took a couple of continuing education courses there (one of which, taught by an instructor from St. Thomas, either the high school or college, was pretty good). We did teach as an adjunct prof for a couple of years in the late’90s at UH, our last semester there being highlighted by our single-handed apprehension of four –– count ’em ––plagiarists out of the 15 or so students total. The thefts were so blatant and pathetic that we almost felt like teaching the guilty a lesson in how to be a successful sneak, instead of giving them gentlemen’s ‘C’ that the ol’ boy who ran the department suggested. Whenever Rice is pitted against UH in an athletic contest, our neutral policy dictates that we cheer for whoever’s ahead.

Monday, April 26, 2010

On Hiatus

Due to the demands of "real life," whatever that may mean, we must temporarily suspend operations here at Slampo's Place. We hope to return soon to continue our self-appointed mission of smiting the wicked, exalting the righteous and improving the mediocre.

Meantime, as always, the window of the Official Clearinghouse for Al Hoang News & Infotainment remains open at the email address to your immediate right.

Thanks for your patronage.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Man in a Hurry

In what simply may have been a case of the natural phenomenon scientists call "a blind squirrel rolling up on a nut," the Chronicle's Teen Columnist recently had a pretty all reet examination of the situational complexities at Lee High School in southwest Houston, which has lost two well-respected principals –– one to firing, the other to getting-out-while-the-getting's-good –– under the new Houston schools superintendent. The columnist noted that the new super –– who initially impressed us as a smile-and-shoeshine sort of fellow (although judging from what we've seen of him on TV that probably should be amended to snarl-and-a-shoeshine) –– had never set foot on the Lee campus, despite overseeing the rending of the school's somewhat delicate fabric. (Lee, as you may have seen and read, has been in the news a bit this school year.) In a follow-up posting last week on her blog, Ms. Falkenberg reported that in the wake of her column* the super was preparing to head down the freeway and actually plant his feet on the campus, and, in response to her email asking him why he was doing so, he had emailed her back that:
Frankly, I have not been able to visit our schools as often as I would like.
Tomorrow, I am visiting Lee and Cashmere (SIC)--two of the schools that the state has labeled as 'failing.' Next week, I plan to visit Jones and several of our other 'failing' or low performing schools.
Obviously the super meant "Kashmere," another HISD school that has been in the news a lot this year. Other than the insertion of the parenthetical "(SIC)" –– that's Latin for "you big dummy" –– Ms. Falkenberg correctly passed on making any ado of the miscue, although some of her online commentators couldn't resist the opportunity.

Our first, admittedly knee-jerk, reaction was: Gee, that's terrible –– the superintendent of schools misspelling the name of an old Houston school that's been all over the newspaper lately and was even the subject of a lengthy investigative report the district ordered up. It certainly did not reflect a reassuring grasp of detail. Upon more sober reflection, though, we realized that the city's top public educator shouldn't be expected to spell the name of one of his schools correctly, especially in an email to a journalist, because, as lots of kids today know, spelling is just so passé.

And anyhow, he spelled L-E-E correctly.

*Unfortunately, Ms. Falkenberg thought it necessary to puff out her chest and aver that she had "called out" the superintendent, thus precluding her immediate promotion to "Young Adult" columnist.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Bill White’s Big Dropout Problem

It has come to our attention, and perhaps to yours, too, that Bill White is under the misimpression that Texas’s “dropout problem,” as he undoubtedly has phrased it somewhere along the line, is the hobby horse he’ll be able to flay straight into the under-repair Governor’s Mansion. It also appears that White is blaming Rick Perry for the problem, or at the very least suggesting that Perry hasn’t done anywhere near enough to keep those hard-working, knowledge-starved kids in school. (We must shrug and stipulate into the record here that, as best we can recall, we have never voted for Perry for any office, and we’re unlikely to do so this year, although, as with all things in heaven and on earth, we’re open to the possibility, in the unlikely event that Perry says or does something that impresses us.) The issue flared last week when, according to this story in the local newspaper, White and Perry argued over the extent of the, um, problem, with White proclaiming that “nearly 1 million Texas students have failed to graduate or get a GED on time” during the nine years Perry has been governor and Perry riposting that “the [number] that Mr. White uses is taking the number of kids starting their freshmen year and then the ones that graduate in four years the following May or June. If a child dies, they count that as a dropout. I think that's a little harsh.”

Now this particular debate over numbers strikes as being almost as meaningless as the semantic one over whether Houston is a “sanctuary” city ('tis what it is, y’know), although we have to give Perry comedy points for his baldly risible assertion that child mortality is is a factor in whatever the actual dropout numbers are. On the larger issue that White has been raising, however, we must rise again, all by our lonesome it seems, to point out what no other member of the Mainstream News and Infotainment Media has the wit, or the stick, to point out, and that is this: Bill White doesn’t have any more of a clue than Rick Perry about how to fix the “dropout problem” (we’re using quotes here because we are not fully convinced that the self-selecting clearing-out of the schools by teenagers who don’t want to be there is an entirely bad thing, but that’s pretty much beside the point we’re driving at, so let us keep our eyes on the road and our hands upon the wheel).

So far White has a little better than nothing, zilch, but clownish and ill-advised catchphrases and gusts of hot air, such as, “The governor is more interested in his own future than the future of Texans.” Yeah, that’s probably 'cause Rick Perry hates kids and wants them to be failures. You can see it in his eyes. And we all remember his wildly successful “Drop Out of School Right Now, Ninos” campaign. The Chronicle story kinda-sorta pointed out White’s nearly empty basket:
White, the son of public school educators, conceded there is no single or easy answer to the problem.

“You need to start early with early childhood education,” he said. “You need to offset summer learning loss (programs) for those elementary school kids who do not have access to books and computers at home during the summer. You need to have more flexible programs that accommodate and support those students in their attempt to graduate who must work when they are in high school.”
Oh, it’s not like anybody ever thought of that before, or tried it. Scouring White’s campaign Web site last week, we saw the first item under the heading “reducing the dropout rate” was this classic example of Bill White’s full-court noblesse:
When a student drops out of school, it must be treated as an emergency, not just another statistic. In Houston we launched Expectation Graduation to cut the dropout rate. For example, each fall, my wife Andrea and I led thousands of volunteers to go to the homes of high school students who have not returned to school. Approximately 8,800 students have returned to school as a result, and this initiative has been replicated in communities across Texas.
Yes, that’ll do it: A statewide version of the PR stunt that HISD and now other school districts pull every summer whereby teachers, administrators and concerned-citizen types go to the houses of dropouts to try and talk them back into school. (We are skeptical in the extreme of this 8,000 number and would suggest that some bored journalist –– a journalist, not a publicist –– track, say, 20 of these kids who answer the door when Bill White and Co. come a’knockin’ this summer to see how many of them actually make it back to school, and how many eventually graduate. Ah, but that would be real work and take lots of time and in any case would probably be a downer, so never mind.) There’s was one decent and very modest idea that White appears to have made, which we can't do justice to at this moment because the "issues" link on his site isn't loading, but it had something to do forging closer links between schools and businesses that employ students in after-school jobs.

If White were serious about the dropout problem and not just trying to warp reality by blaming Perry, he'd buck up and demonstrate some of the intestinal fortitude his successor as mayor seems to possess by doing the following:

1. Call for the immediate end of "bilingual" classes in Texas public schools in favor of strict and unrelenting English immersion for all students. This is one of our frequent hobby horses, so we’ll just direct your attention to this Heather McDonald article exploring how, as the author put is, the “curtailment of California’s bilingual-education industry” and its “counterintuitive linguistic claims” have led to slightly higher test scores for Hispanic students in that state. The “dropout problem" is not, of course, exclusively a Hispanic problem, but in large urban school districts it is a disproportionately Hispanic one, and anyone who thinks the early-grades barrio-izing of non-English-speaking Spanish speakers doesn’t contribute, directly, to the “dropout problem” down the road is a fool. White won't do this, of course, because he's already demonstrated a pronounced disinclination to break with Democratic Party orthodoxy, and the fear of course is that such a stand would alienate Hispanic voters, although we'd expect the blowback would be a lot less than you'd imagine among Mexican-Americans who actually vote (and speak English). But White needs to do this, not just because it's the right thing (always reason enough), but because he requires his own "Sister Souljah" moment ––and this, unlike Clinton's, would be a moment on something that actually matters–– if he wants to avoid having “Lost to Rick '39 Percent' Perry in First Bid for Statewide Office” as his next resume entry. This is a no-brainer when it comes to sound public policy. Maybe that's why we can't recall Rick Perry ever having anything to say on the subject, either.

2. Call for an immediate end to the requirement that students must complete four years of math, four years of science, four years of English, etc., to graduate high school. This, too, would skirt the boundaries of bipartisan heresy –– that no man's land where Bill White has rarely ventured –– because it would implicitly acknowledge the cold fact, verifiable by 4,000 years of human experience, that not all kids are cut out to master Algebra II. What you could do instead is retain the 4-year requirements for a college-bound track of study but offer an alternative for kids who’d rather learn some vocational skills and who probably aren't going to get a whole out of reading, say, Love in the Time of Cholera. Beginning with or just after 9th grade, the bewitching hour for most dropouts, the non-college track would consist of three hours in the morning of intense instruction and/or remediation in math and language arts, with three more hours after lunch devoted to the teaching of skills (plural) that will come in handy in the workplace. The choice of tracks would up to the student and his parents. This, too is no-brainer, but come to think of it we can't recall Rick Perry saying much on the subject (maybe he has and we missed it).

3. Start addressing the nettlesome and unpleasant cultural factors that are the main contributor to the “dropout problem.” Take to the bully pulpit and emphasize that it’s not a good idea for 12-year-old “shorties” to be having more shorties. Suggest to parents that it’s an equally bad idea to pull their kids out of school for a month in the middle of the semester to go back to Mexico. Explain why it’s not a sound parenting practice for mamas to drop their kindergartners off at school in the morning with the godawful rap music with its “motherfucker this” and “motherfucker that” blaring out of the windows. In other words, start putting the onus where it belongs: on the parents. Because no halfway sensible person is going to look at the "dropout problem" and think Rick Perry's the daddy.