Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Writers on the Storm

Adding to the floating debris in the aftermath of Katrina, in lieu of doing something useful, other than making our meager donation to the Red Cross:

We first read in the Brazosport News early Wednesday morning of the suggestion that the Astrodome be opened to house New Orleans evacuees, an idea that we’ve since learned has been put into motion by Harris County officials. We don’t know enough to actually credit Banjo Jones with the initiative---according to the AP, Harris County first began considering the possibility early Wednesday---but it’s certainly the kind of helpful, constructive suggestion that a blogger can amplify and spread …

… Unlike this very unhelpful screed by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who, without waiting for the bodies to be counted, is blaming the hurricane damage on Bush and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, for scuttling proposed mandatory caps on CO2 emissions, thus contributing to what Kennedy claims is the scientifically verifiable increase in “destructive hurricanes” due to global warning (which doesn’t account for the Great Storm of 1900. or …). We still consider ourself a Democrat, nominally---well, slightly more than 50 percent of the time----but this is the kind of thing that makes it hard for us to admit to being one. There are a lot of things we could blame Bush for---the hemorrhaging deficit, the war in Iraq not going to according to plan, or non-plan---but we draw the line at Hurricane Katrina. Damn you, Bush, for making the wind blow so hard! This kind of thinking isn’t limited to Kennedy, as evidenced here. Kennedy does remind us, however, that Pat Robertson once warned that hurricanes were likely to hit communities that “offended God,” and New Orleans is (or was) a very Catholic city, and there's all those casinos on the coast …

And Peter Applebome of the New York Times wonders in well-written deadline piece if a wrecked New Orleans, when (or if) it recovers, will retain its singular “immutable” spirit or just throw in the towel and become like every place else. What we’ve found worrisome, long before Katrina’s rampage, is the prospect of other cities becoming more like New Orleans. We love the place---we lived there briefly years ago, have visited often and had many good times there, and a few bad ones, too---but outside of the tourist tracks it's a falling-apart, depressing mess. No one with even a cursory knowledge of the city was surprised by the looting. The middle-class, white and black, long ago abandoned New Orleans---the city proper, inside what is as of this writing the rapidly filling bowl---leaving a large black underclass (and in New Orleans, that sterile sociological description fits to a T) and a thin stratum of residents, white and black, who, while probably not all “wealthy” in the conventional sense of the term, are certainly well-off enough to insulate themselves from the everyday hazards of street life, as well as reliance on the public schools, the public transportation, or the public health structure. New Orleans’ economy is mostly tied to its service industries and the peddling of a sentimentalized version of itself that barely exists any more (sort of like those little East Texas towns that have become nothing more than one big antique shop). A longtime friend of ours who gave up on New Orleans a few years ago to move back to southwest Louisiana, a guy who is much sturdier than the average middle-class white person, tried to explain what it was like living deep in the city: “It’s like anything can happen, at any time.”

What see what he meant.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Armageddon in Evangeline, or Some Place Close By

We spent much of the past weekend and Monday afternoon keeping our TV eye on Hurricane Katrina, hoping it wouldn’t wreak too much havoc on New Orleans and, closer to home, that it wouldn’t suddenly swerve and make a beeline for our mama’s house 120 miles to the west. The latter was spared, but the former, sadly, was not.

Despite the storm’s path well to the east of the Texas coast, Houston television viewers were still able to experience the familiar frisson afforded by the sight of Channel 13’s Wayne Dolcefino blowin’ in the wind, this time from the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain (Dolcefino always does a good job, but it appears that nothing less than a Category 5 hurricane can generate the windpower sufficient to reposition his ever-expanding bulk). There were other small pleasures to be found: the slightly bug-eyed woman on CNN who persisted in saying kat-a-REENA during her interview with Louisiana’s U.S. Sen. David Vitter (demoted to a lowly “Rep.” on the network’s crawl), or the MSNBC weatherman who pronounced “Plaquemine” three different ways during a 30-second span. Beyond those understandable miscues were more serious breaches: the lady on the Weather Channel (we think, although we were clicking around with abandon, so it may have been CNN or MSNBC or TNT or BET) who declared that the “hurricane” looked “beautiful” at that moment---not the real hurricane charging through the Gulf on its way to dealing death and devastation, but the inflamed red pustule churning on the radar screen (calling Roland Barthes!). Then there was the correspondant on some network or another who on Sunday afternoon almost hollered at the top of her lungs that the entire city of New Orleans “very well could be under 20 or 30 feet of water at this time tomorrow!” OK, lady, but like we tell our kids---yelling doesn’t help.

After being unplugged from the coverage all day Monday, we hopped in our car and heard a reporter on NPR declare somewhat tentatively and very prematurely that New Orleans appeared to have fared well in the storm. Alas, the poor guy had his hand on only a very small, localized part of the elephant’s appendage: “I’m standing at the foot of Canal Street.” he reported, “and it’s not one,” meaning a canal (ho heh). He could’ve stopped there, but he went on to say the scene was NOT evoking that line from the classic Randy Newman song: “Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline.” He said it Evange-leen, mispronouncing Newman’s own (probably intentional) mispronunciation Evange-line (it’s Evange-lun, at least in Evangeline, a parish a good two-and-a-half hour drive from New Orleans and well out of the way of the storm’s fury; but what the hell, to the parochial national media types it’s just another colorfully named locale where all these exotic, slowing-talking white and black folks insist on living).

So we figured New Orleans did indeed do OK and went on home, trying to shake from our mind Newman’s lyrics to what ought to be Louisiana’s state anthem (“They’re trying to wash us away …”), until we turned to CNN and heard a reporter named Jeanne Meserve excitedly declare that the scene looked like “Armageddon” in New Orleans’ flooded 9th Ward. “Well Jeanne,” said Wolf Blitzer, back in the studio, “you’re an experienced reporter so you should know what Armageddon looks like, if anyone does” (calling Pat Roberston!). We decided to split the difference between Armageddon and NOT a Randy Newman song, although as it turned out Meserve was much closer to the truth.

Of course, the media plays an important role in informing the public (as they are sure to remind you, at half-hour intervals), something that was acknowledged by Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin (who both impressed us as being level-headed and real as the hurricane approached and they grappled with extremely difficult judgment calls). But the media coverage---the quantity and the tone---sure has changed since we were a lad in the pre-cable era. Back then, when we lived about 40 or so miles from the Louisiana coast, a hurricane seemed to hit or brush close by almost every year. The storm-tracking technology was relatively primitive---we remember being cut loose from school only a few hours before a hurricane hit, maybe it was Betsy or Hilda, and joining our schoolmates in pedaling furiously home on our Schwinns in the thickest downpour we’ve ever been caught in. The local announcers usually stood in front of a map, on which a magnetic marker representing the hurricane was moved by hand (not “beautiful”). They’d take phone calls from the outlying areas---from their few reporters, or a local Civil Defense worker, or yam cultivation expert Thibodeaux---and relay the information about damage, evacuation centers, etc. They were controlled and wooden, at least compared to today’s hyperventilating self-dramatizers, but they seemed to be more aware of the public-service aspect of their jobs. Eventually, as the hurricane came ashore, the TV stations would be knocked off the air. The electricity would follow, then the local radio stations would go dead. We remember sitting in the dark and listening to a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game on a clear-channel station far away while hurricane winds roared outside.

Hurricanes remind us that there are things we can’t control---thus the fear and apprehension they stoke, as well as the buzz (yeah, let’s admit it) they trigger as they approach. And even with all the modern technology and hot-cha graphics, it’s impossible for the broadcast media to get a full and true picture of what’s going on, while it’s going on. Three years ago a supposedly piddlin’ little storm named Lily bore down on the Louisiana coast, headed in the direction of our parents’ home. But it was mere Category 2, and after it hit NPR and the cable networks declared it a big nothing, a mere pffftttttt of a storm, no big deal, and we went to bed. Later that morning we were awakened by a call from our mama, who reported that Lily had raked the town unmercifully and blown a half-ton of water oak on and through the roof of our parents’ home. Much of the town was without electricity for at least four days (yeah, it was so bad that you couldn’t find a cold beer anywhere), and the damage eventually ran into the millions and millions of dollars.

So you never know.

AND WHAT WOULD MAHATMA DO? Amy Barnett, of NBC affiliate Channel 2 in Houston, had an excellent story Monday night on a Comfort Inn in Baytown that was charging hurricane refugees $200 for an $80-a-night room. Barnett confronted the scuzzy malefactor, the manager of the hotel, whose name was Ms. So-and-So Gandhi. (Yeah, you couldn’t make this stuff up.) Barnett eventually got Ms. Gandhi to lower her eyes and ’fess up that, yes, what she was doing was wrong, kinda sorta. The public humiliation at Barnett’s hands was certainly a much kinder punishment than Ms. Gandhi deserved. (Harrumph…)

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Six Questions, No Answers

1. Why did someone with a flair for penmanship spray-paint POOP! in black letters---with the exclamation point---on the front of the spanking-new John P. McGovern-Stella Link Branch Library on Stella Link Boulevard in southwest Houston?

2. Why did the Y we’ve belonged to for 17 years suddenly install mirrors on the walls of the area housing the weight machines? Is there no escape from Self (or even Not-Self) anymore?

3. Why did the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd recently write (in a column we read in the Houston Chronicle) that Iraq could turn into a haven for terrorists “that will make the old Afghanistan look like Cipriani’s”? And what or who is Cipriani’s? And why should we have to go to Google to decipher a column in a general-interest newspaper? Is this Cipriani’s the chain of swank restaurants with outposts in New York and London (most likely), or the pizza parlor by the same name in Chicago (highly unlikely), or maybe it’s the home of the kid (now old person, if still extant) who lived up the street from us on North Arlington Drive in the early 1960s (probably not; come to think of it, his name was Cypriano). And doesn’t equating a “terrorist haven” with something called “Cipriani’s” reveal the columnist to be strangely tone-deaf (to be polite)?

4. How come the Houston Chronicle sells the cover of its weekly TV guide to advertisers, but doesn’t provide a disclaimer noting that those covers are indeed advertisements, although it does provide such a disclaimer over the inside “stories” that these covers promote, technically making these “stories” advertisements and not stories in the traditionally accepted journalistic sense of the word “story,” although they are indeed referred to as “stories” in the indexes on the covers? And why are the shows that are so promoted usually not really “shows” in the traditionally accepted television sense of the word “shows,” but rather infomercials for local health care providers that employ present and past local TV news personalities to give them a veneer of journalistic credibility?

5. Tryin’ to make it real: Compared to what?

6. RE: Question 5, When will Dave Chappelle return to TV? We were a little late to the Comedy Central phenomenon that had 12-year-old boys across the country growling “I’m Rick James, bitch” a couple of years ago, but we became quick converts to The Way of Chappelle. Yes, some of it was dumb, unfunny and in atrociously bad taste (even to us), but the man was definitely willing to take a risk, unlike most everybody else on TV (outside of those responsible for The Sopranos, Deadwood, Curb Your Enthusiasm, South Park and The Simpsons, still, on occasion …. That’s it). Much of it, though, was just too damn funny, and some of it bordered on brilliant: Where else could you see anything smarter, including on the above five parenthetically mentioned shows, as Chappelle’s “When Keepin' It Real Goes Wrong” routine (“Keepin' It Real” no longer being an exclusively African-American priority, if it ever was---in fact, we’ve read that Thomas Sowell has detected a pronounced hereditary strain of keeping-it-real-ism in the early Scots-Irish settlers to this country) or those bits with Eddie Murphy’s brother, especially the one about playing basketball at Prince’s house? Being introduced to Chappelle while monitoring our teenager’s viewing habits was like randomly stumbling across SNL back in ’75: Where did that come from? Of course, it made perfect sense when we learned that Chappelle is a professor’s son who has a farm in Ohio or someplace like that and is a convert to Islam. So Dave, come back---we know you’ve got a lot to live up to, but even second-rate Chappelle is better than no Chappelle.

Correction Corner: In the August 10, 2005 posting on Slampo’s Place, or maybe it was August 11, we misstated the model year of a vehicle in which a group of teenagers we referred to as “Slampo & Co.” traveled in the summer of 1972 in an unsuccessful effort to see the Rolling Stones at Hofheinz Pavillion in Houston. The vehicle that made this trip was a 1960 Ford Falcon, not a 1964 Ford Falcon. Slampo’s Place regrets the error.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Cavalcade of Blowhards

David Brooks of the New York Times recently visited San Antonio and employed the town as the setting for a column on illegal immigration (our nation apparently is having one of its periodic public head-scratchings over the issue; it’s very hot public policy). It appears, though, that Brooks was only making a stopover at the airport, since he doesn’t actually quote one living San Antonio resident in his piece (at least in the version we read this morning in the Houston Chronicle). In fact, the only live person he quotes is Tamar Jacoby of the Manhattan Institute, who predictably harrumphs with regard to current immigration policy that it’s “very hard to enforce enforceable rules.”

So, in lieu of an actual human being, Brooks condescendingly conjures a “working class guy from the south side of San Antonio” who, although the columnist doesn’t say so, has to be white, because Brooks feels compelled to add that this fictional salt-of-the-earth gent is “not a racist” and many of his “favorite” neighbors are hard-working Latinos. (We’d suggest that if Brooks wanted to hear some real breathing Americans vent their spleens on illegal immigration, he dig up a Garcia or Hernandez or Rodriguez whose family has been in this country for generations; they shouldn’t be too hard to find in San Antonio, and it would save Brooks the trouble of attaching the “not a racist” disclaimer to his make-believe everyman.) But then he goes on to blithely dismiss Minutemen types, many of whom in fact do not possess Ivy League degrees, as “beer swilling good old boys” (so much for the noble working-class), although he talks to exactly none of them.

In the wake of this arduous fact-finding mission, Brooks endorses the pending jury-rigged and highly unrealistic federal legislation as a suitable compromise remedy to what he calls “immigration chaos” that is “spreading a subculture of criminality” in the U.S. In other words, he basically favors keeping the immigration pipeline open, with some slight adjustments to the valve. Why? Because the economy demands “hundreds of thousands of new workers to clean hotel rooms and process food.” And, as he forgets to add, take jobs from citizens and depress wages. And place enormous burdens on the public health and education systems. Not to mention raise troubling questions about language and common culture and national identity—all that icky stuff that leaves most of us too discomfited to even discuss in a rational manner.

Next time Brooks does a “drop in” to snare a dateline for an Olympian pronouncement on immigration, we’d suggest he walk the streets of Nuevo Laredo for a first-hand reading of what truly makes lots of Americans uneasy about the blurring of borders. Of course, that would require some knowledge of another language and possible exposure to gunfire, not to mention reporting skills … ahhh, that’s way too much work.

Another media type who’s been crawling up our ass lately is Christopher Hitchens. We like the man’s writings, and we admire him for his heresy and excommunication from the High Church of the Left after 9/11. And we’ll acknowledge that his support of the war in Iraq always seemed predicated on the lifting of Saddam’s killer hands off that country’s throat, based on Hitchens’ knowledge of and friendships with Iraqi dissidents, and not necessarily on the various 101 rationales that the Bush administration was throwing against the wall before it decided to essentially stand down from the arguments while waiting for the Iraqis to stand up.

But Hitchens, like other highly visible war supporters, seems to have been driven around the bend by Cindy Sheehan. We caught him briefly on C-SPAN early today---not exactly looking bright-eyed and bushy-tailed---and heard him imperiously dismiss “Sheehan’s antics” and then accuse her of promoting the belief that that “a secret cabal of Jews in the [Bush] administration” is responsible for the war in Iraq. In other words, he’s joined in the pile-on smearing of the woman by suggesting she’s an anti-Semite (is there any other way to interpret his jaunty off-hand deployment of “secret cabal of Jews,” a phrase which, as far we can tell, has never crossed Sheehan’s lips?). Then we learned that Hitchens’ blowsy early-morning banter was a less-studied extension of a column he wrote for Slate in which he attacks Sheehan for her somewhat off-key pronouncement that her soldier son died in Iraq for “lies and for a PNAC Neo-Con agenda to benefit Israel.”

That’s fair game for criticism, although we don’t see “secret Jewish cabal” in there. But Hitchens keeps piling on: He writes that ex-Nazi and “Euro-American Heritage” blogger David Duke “went flying” to Sheehan’s side after her “Jewish cabal” statement (again, Hitchens' words). We took that literally until we hit the link in Hitchens’ story and wound up looking at a pro-Sheehan, anti-Israel screed on Duke’s Web site. Flying to her side, my ass.

We are not possessed of the conspiratorial turn of mind that attributes the U.S. folly in Iraq to the crafty designs of ex-Trotskyites and closet Zionists who’ve brainwashed a helpless Bush (we blame it on mere standard-brand if deadly bumble-fuckery, for which the architects are now all scrambling to change the subject or otherwise avoid responsibility), and we generally view the world in somewhat less high-contrast hues than Mrs. Sheehan apparently does.

Yet the woman should have a right to speak about the war without having David Duke rubbed all over her. While she may not be entitled to the “ultimate” moral authority the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd would grant her, she’s probably deserving of a tad more than, say, Hitchens, the British ex-pat whose great sacrifices for the war he’s backed from the beginning include … well, let’s just say his profile as a well-compensated public intellectual has risen tremendously since the war began, and in the meantime, judging by what we saw on C-SPAN, he doesn’t appear to have missed too many meals.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Another Reason We Might Like to Vote for Kinky

It’s this long-playing vinyl record album right here, cleverly titled Kinky Friedman, which dates to 1974. We once owned a copy and spun it all the time but lost it somewhere along the way as we rambled 'round from town to town. As fate would have it, we happened upon it again one Saturday afternoon four or five months ago when we dropped in at an estate sale near our home. The former owner, judging by the stacks of books and 33 rpm records he left behind, counted among his enthusiasms real estate law, the state of Israel, Harry Belafonte and bland, Mighty Wind-style folk music from the late 1950s and early '60s. For 50 cents we walked away with two of what were surely his prized earthly possessions: a Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band LP featuring the succulent young Maria Muldaur and future short-time Messiah Mel Lyman on harmonica, as well as a near-mint copy of this Kinky album. We took it home, fired up the old turntable, and were struck once again by how smart, knowing and even moving this record (the Kinky, not the Kweskin) was. And is.

Has Carole Keeton Whatever-Her-Last-Name-Is-This-Year ever written and performed such crushingly beautiful songs as Wild Man from Borneo or When the Lord Closes the Door, He Opens a Little Window? Or Rick Perry---he ­­can’t even handle the likes of Tom Craddick, much less get it together long enough to assemble such a fine, foot-stomping, laughing-at-the-apocalypse anthem as Before All Hell Breaks Loose. Or what about ... wait, it'll come to us ... ah ... would [insert name of potential gubernatorial candidate here] ever have it in him(or her)self to offer such an ecumenical, everybody-sing-along profession of loyalty to his religion as They Ain't Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore? And have it produced by Willie Nelson? And appear on the front cover of his album lighting a cigar and on the back cover smoking a non-filter cigarette?

Is all this a legitimate reason to vote for someone for governor? Yes, it is---the album’s that good!
“Now I know what the gypsy meant
When she told me I’d never be president.
She said, “Adopt a Korean and kill you a moose
Before all hell breaks loose.”

Sunday, August 14, 2005

It’s Too Damn Hot to Bat a Mere Eyelash

We recently used this space to discuss a column by Jose de Jesus Ortiz, the Houston Chronicle’s baseball writer. Mr. Ortiz had made what seemed to us a reasonable request: that the new broadcaster the Astros hire be able to correctly say the names of the team’s Latino players. We agreed that should be a non-negotiable qualification for the job but went on to note the difficulty we and pretty much everyone else (that is, the sizable portion of the populace that doesn’t have a play-by-play gig in Major League Baseball) has in pronouncing just-so the names of every last resident of this big, churning, ready-mix city of dreams we call home. We took a quick roll-call of our little subdivision---the Chinese folks, the Armenian-Iranian family unit across the street, the Franco-American redneck next door, our Mexican-American friends, etc.---and noted how many of them routinely had their names mispronounced, even by longtime neighbors. We quickly tired of this and didn’t get around to mentioning the nearby Vietnamese-Americans, the Pakistani-Americans, the Indo-Americans, the extended Bantu-speaking African refugee clan, the dour Russian crew from Kazakhstan up the street, the usual sundry run of African-Americans and Euro-Americans … we’ll stop now.

This posting brought an unusually large volume of e-mail to Slampo’s Place--- three, not including one from a friend of ours that we didn’t fully understand. A wise guy who identified himself as “Richard Smith” of Beaumont invited us to move to Vidor (we’ll have to explain this reference to our readers in France another time) if we weren’t down with all this diversity. We are, actually, but our point was that in a town with all 57+ varieties of humanity, the erroneous accenting of a high-paid utility infielder's name by an equally well-remunerated baseball announcer doesn’t have to be elevated to a La Raza-level offense. Multiculturalism can be hard work (we think that was our point).

We also went far out of our way to note that in the old days many immigrants with hard-to-say names simply shortened them or exchanged them for what were then considered more American-sounding ones. Among those huddled masses we counted our own grandfather, who performed voluntary surgery on the Slampeaux name (variations of which date back tens of thousands of years and can be found scrawled on the walls of caves in southern France) after he grew weary of hearing it intentionally mispronounced slam-POO by the fun-loving East Texans he had landed among. We are comforted to know this sort of thing still goes on, as we learned from this “Name Change Notice” we recently spotted in the local India Herald:
"I, Barkat Nurali Ali, herby declare the change of my name from Barkatali Nurali Miyajibhai Maknojiya to Barkat Nurali Ali.”
We thank you, Barkat (very cool name), on behalf of the doctor who writes your prescriptions and the druggist who fills them, the cop who last gave you a traffic ticket, the registrar at the college and, last but certainly not least, the contract worker in Bangalore who helped you when your Internet service was on the blip but first needed you to spell your mother’s maiden name.

Why Did We Find This So Funny? The “Corrections” box in Saturday’s New York Times included this item, in reference to the paper’s obituary on Dallas star Barbara Bel Geddes: “A picture caption referred incorrectly to the character she played. It was Miss Ellie, not Ms. Ellie.”

Friday, August 12, 2005

One Reason We Might Kinda Like to Vote for Kinky Friedman (A Continuing Series)

… Aside from his foursquare stand against the pervasive wussification of Texas, a position that most right-thinking citizens of all political persuasions can get behind. And aside from the spiritual and health benefits we'll realize by “saving” ourselves for Kinky and thus relieving us of what has become the increasingly dreary chore of voting for a bunch of people we know nothing about in either the Republican or Democratic primary.

No, one thing that caught our eye early on about Friedman is that he, alone among Texas politicians, seems willing discuss illegal immigration as if it were actually a serious problem warranting a serious remedy. Or at least he was, not too long ago. Not that Friedman seems to have any serious suggestions on what to do about it, but at least he’s given notice that he recognizes the burdens it’s placed on the state’s public health-care and education systems.

Back before he "formally announced" his candidacy, we caught Friedman on Imus proposing that Texas construct a Buchanan-esqe wall on the border, and he even had a cute one-liner about it: “President Fox, help us put up that wall.” More recently, he was promoting some silly “five Mexican generals” bounty-hunting scheme to cut the cross-border flow. (We like the idea of the Kinky campaign, at least the giant-upraised-middle-finger spirit of the endeavor, but eventually it has to evolve into something more than one of his books --- that is, a string of one-liners with a barely discernible plot. And lesbian jokes.)

We realize illegal immigration is a sensitive and complex topic, one that gives rise to a good deal of ambivalence among the thoughtful portion of the citizenry. That ambivalence is reflected in most proposed federal legislation on the subject --- crack down harder at the border or on employers while making some usually convoluted effort to legalize the illegals already here. Yet we suspect that a larger percentage of the population (blacks, whites and Hispanics) than the media picks up on is generally more sympathetic to the goals, if not the DIY tactics, of those creaky old Minutemen dudes, and far less supportive of the let-the-good-times-roll philosophies of both the Wall Street Journal editorial page and that local “immigrant advocate” lady we’ve seen a lot on TV lately (y’know, the one who named her daughter after Stalin).

It’s a local problem but a federal responsibility, and we’re not even sure what a governor can do (is Friedman?) But it would be nice, for a change, to have some unfettered, old-style and unwussified Texan dialogue on the matter.

In other news: An Associated Press feature on the upcoming expulsion of Israeli squatters from the Gaza Strip quoted one Irit Tsvaig, a resident of a fundamentalist community there that had figured (wrongly, it appears) that the Messiah would arrive in time to prevent their imminent 86-ing from the premises. The reporter noted that Tsvaig spoke to him “while watching her children play with a set of Gaza settlement collectible cards” (emphasis added). We usually refrain from offering investment advice here at Slampo’s Place, but we urge you to snap up any Gaza settlement collectible cards (complete set or not) if you run across them at a garage sale or on eBay.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Time Ain’t on Our Side: A Quick Stroll Down Memory Lane, then Back and Forward

Summer 1972: Slampo & Co. pile into ’64 Ford Falcon and head to Hofheinz Pavillion on the University of Houston campus to catch Exile on Main Street-era Rolling Stones, but make unscheduled detour to Galveston County Jail. Miss concert. Richard Nixon is president. War in Vietnam is winding down, but U.S. troops still fighting. Oil is $2 a barrel.

Summer 1975: Slampo & Co. pile into Ford Econoline van and head to LSU Assembly Center in Baton Rouge, La. to catch opening of Rolling Stones’ North American tour. Arrive in time to see Mick straddling giant inflatable penis on stage. “Not impressed,” sniffs Slampo. Gerald Ford is president. Oil is $11 a barrel.

Summer 2005: Rolling Stones to open latest North American tour in [name of city goes here]. Tour is sponsored by Ameriquest Mortgage. Slampo not expected to be in attendance. George W. Bush is president. Oil is $60+ a barrel. And, oh yeah: It’s easy to forget sometimes, but we’re at war.

Summer 2030: 87-year-old Mick Jagger holds press conference to announce latest “Jagger y Amigos” tour, on which the only surviving member of the 1960s band the Rolling Stones will be backed by ex-members of early century rock revivalists The Killers. Tour will again be sponsored by the nation-state of China, with a small portion of the proceeds dedicated to paying off U.S. debt. News of tour is bumped off front page of USA Hoy, the nation’s lone surviving newspaper, by the reported death of fugitive Osama bin Laden on the island of Aruba. “That sucker could run, but he couldn’t hide,” declared President Jenna Bush. Oil selling for $1,945 a barrel. Long-dead Slampo tries, unsuccessfully, to roll over in grave while humming the “make a dead man cum” line from Start Me Up. And, oh yeah: It’s easy to forget sometimes, but we’re still at war.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Say My Name, Say My Name ... However You Damn Well Please

Jose de Jesus Ortiz, the Houston Chronicle's baseball reporter, thinks whoever the Astros hire to do their radio road broadcasts for Milo Hamilton should be able to correctly pronounce the names of the team's Latino players. He set down this qualification in a column last weekend that was mostly devoted to what he perceives as the widespread disrespect-ing of players of Hispanic origin, most recently evidenced by a San Francisco sports radio talker's dumbass rant against "brain-dead" Caribbeans in the Giants' line-up. According to Jose de Jesus --- pardon our presumptuous familiarity --- this is more than just disrespect, it's tantamount to insulting these players' very manhood. Obviously, Sr. Ortiz --- excuse our lapse back to formality, but we're uncomfortable in casually referencing someone who bears the name of Our Lord and Savior --- has taken to heart his newspaper's recent declaration that the metrosexual is dead.

But we feel ya, nos hermano, when it comes to the mangling of ballplayers' names. In this case we certainly don't think it's asking too much to say a man's name --- or even a lady's ---- the way it should be said. After all, with the Astros it's only a half-dozen or so names, and you say them thousands of times over the course of the season, so by all means get it right. But is Mr. Ortiz demanding that the announcer enunciate like a native speaker (assuming he --- or she! ---isn't one), by rolling his Rs from here to yonder and coming down REAL HARD on just the right accent, the way all those local Hispanic reporters and anchors on TV who picked up their Spanish in high school and college do? After all, this is the United States, and almost everyone except the Smiths and Joneses long ago got used to having the pronunciation of his or her name sanded down or wrongly accented or slurred or mumbled or somehow screwed-up. We don't see this as disrespect, or even ignorance or laziness; it's just another rite of assimilation.

We're thinking of the Armenian-Iranian family catty-cornered from us, whose two-syllable last name we apparently had wrongly stressed for years, just because that's the way we heard everyone else say it (admittedly, we weren't broadcasting on the radio). And what about the aging hippie-redneck says-he's-a-Vietnam-vet dude next door? You'd imagine he went by "Billy Bob Peckerhead" or such, but, no, the boy's surname is French --- French nobility, in fact. We've heard it mispronounced all the time, and we're sure he hears it seven different ways from Sunday late at night at the icehouse. Or the retired Mexican-American educator across the way, who's variously known as, and has variously presented herself as, both Blanca and Blanche? Then there was the late Mr. Gee down the street, the kindly Chinaman who grew bok choy in his front yard, whose family was thoughtful enough to adopt a name WE COULD EASILY PRONOUNCE, although beyond his name we rarely understood a word he said.

And then ... well, we could go on with this, but our point is that having your name mispronounced is a time-honored American tradition, one that all varieties of peoples have been dealing with for hundreds of years (and until recently, without whining about it). Lots of people just said "fug it" and got themselves a brand new made-up name, so's they wouldn't always be wasting precious time correcting the mispronouncing of the one they brought over. We recall the Jewish merchant family back in our little hometown who ran the Brown's Thrift City and other "Brown's" enterprises with the logo of the smiling, penny-pinching Scotsman. We never asked, but we're pretty sure they didn't give a poo how you said their real name, as long as they sold enough barbecue pits, sofas and 45 rpm records to send their kids to medical school.

As our next-door neighbor can attest, it's especially bad for us of the French persuasion. Perhaps Mr. Ortiz recalls Jose Bovè, the anti-globalist sheepherder from the south of France who a few years ago was in the news for leading the dismantling of an under-construction McDonald's, or something like that. Well-meaning TV and radio broadcasters across the nation, sensitized to the "correct" way of saying Jose, pronounced M. Bovè's first name the way we imagine Mr. Ortiz pronounces his. But that was wrong! So it kinda depends on where you're coming from ...

Our very own name has been discombobulated for generations by people (some of them Hispanics, even) who say it SLAM-po, as in "grand slam," with the accent on the first syllable, even though the educated person will correctly pronounce it slim-PO, the way it was said back in the old country before our grand-père stepped off the boat from Le Havre and quickly went native by shedding the centuries-old Slampeaux family name.

But do we get riled? Do we see it as a sign of disrespect, as some calculated attack on the essence of our being, on our very metrosexuality?

Not as long as you spell the name right on the check.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Howard Zinn and the Wages of Historical Amnesia

This month marks the 60th anniversary of the dropping of the A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which means it’s time for People’s History of America author Howard Zinn to elbow his way on to a small corner of the stage to argue that President Truman’s decision to bomb the Japanese with the fearsome new weapon was unwarranted, cruel, racist and an affront to civilization. The poor man's Noam Chomsky has been making that argument for years, and we most recently read it again in a pretty decent news article on the Hiroshima anniversary in the Asbury Park, N.J. Press.

Zinn maintains that the war in the Pacific was essentially over by August, 1945, that Japan was ready to throw in the towel but the United States’ intransigent demand for an unconditional surrender was delaying the imminent peace. Drawing on the work of fellow lefty historian Gar Alperovitz, Zinn claims Truman’s true but hidden agenda was to send a pre-Cold War shot across the bow of the Soviet Union. “A wanton act of gargantuan cruelty” is how he described the bombings in an essay a few years ago. That it was indeed cruelty on a gargantuan scale is undeniable, but whether it was “wanton” --- that is, unjustified --- is a whole other area of inquiry. The moral and strategic questions are certainly arguable, but Zinn’s not really interested: His unhidden agenda, as always, is to paint the United States as a strictly malevolent force in the world. He’s even suggested that the possibility of future commercial benefits figured in the decision to drop the A-bombs.

We had long ago made up our minds on this subject. Our father was in a rifle company of the Army’s 83rd Division, the “Thunderbolt Division,” and arrived in Europe just in time for combat in the Ardennes and Rhineland campaigns. Being one of the replacement troops in the 83rd, which had fought its way through the hedgerows starting a few days after the Allied landing at Normandy, it’s a pretty good bet that his survival, which apparently was not a sure bet at the time, would have meant a trip to the Japanese mainland. And that may have thrown our later existence into doubt. Not that our existence is worth so many Japanese lives, but bringing it down to a personal level always clears away the ambiguities in these hypothetical arguments.

Reading Victor Davis Hanson’s “Wages of Suicide” chapter on Okinawa in his fascinating Ripples of Battle: How the Wars of the Past Still Determine How We Fight, How We Live and How We Think reinforced out belief. Hanson is a classics professor in California and contributor to the National Review. He bats right but isn’t especially ideological or knee-jerk. He’s written eloquently and perceptively on our war with Islamic terrorists post-9/11 (although we’d respectfully part company with his belief that our invasion of Iraq was a necessary extension of that war). Hanson has a personal interest in Okinawa: His uncle and namesake was a Marine who died on the island. His argument, stripped of most of its complexity, is that the horrific brutality of the fighting on Okinawa --- for U.S. troops, it was truly a meat grinder --- made it plain that there were thousands if not millions of Japanese who would be willing to literally set themselves on fire for the Empire in what was by then, yes, pretty much a lost cause. The battle for Okinawa marked the first full-scale use of kamikaze pilots --- what Hanson calls mass “state-organized suicide” --- and it’s startling to read, even in this day of almost routine suicide bombings, of the thousands of pilots the Japanese militarists had ready to steer their planes into U.S. ships. “No discussion of Hiroshima … is intellectually legitimate without careful consideration of the events that transpired on Okinawa,” writes Hanson, who goes on to quote author George Feifer:
"Okinawa’s caves, killing grounds and anguish ought to be remembered. It ought to be suggested …. that the first atomic bomb prevented the homicidal equivalent of over two hundred more of the same: the 20 million Japanese deaths if invasion had been necessary, in addition to all the other deaths, Western and Asian.”
Unfortunately, it’s Howard Zinn’s facile interpretations, and not those of Hanson or Feifer, that have carried the day, at least for today, when it comes to the teaching of U.S. history. A year or so ago the Washington Post’s Jay Matthews, the paper’s excellent education reporter, went into D.C.-area high schools to survey students on what they knew about World War II. He found that the one event of which a good two-thirds were aware was their country’s internment of Japanese-Americans. Far fewer could name a U.S. general or a major battle of the war in which so many Americans died. Yes, the internment of American citizens during wartime is an important event to know and discuss --- it was a sad chapter, but how easy it is to say that in hindsight --- yet it’s really nothing more than a very minor footnote to World War II, one of course that neatly buttresses Zinn’s reductive, formulaic approach (U.S.=bad). Not that we think Zinn is some important intellectual figure, but we wouldn’t underestimate his influence: His People’s History is a staple on history teachers’ bookshelves, and we’ve had it pushed on us by one well-meaning educator who believes it tells “the real story” of our country. Matthews writes:
Diane Ravitch, an educational historian at New York University, said the big emphasis in high schools today is on the internment camps, as well as women in the workforce on the home front and discrimination against African Americans at home and in the armed services.

"Then, too, there was a war in the Atlantic and Pacific," she said.
Ignorance of the U.S. role in World War II isn’t limited to high school students, though: A few months back the Houston Chronicle ran an op-ed piece by a local writer who recounted the story of a gloriously brave American soldier who during the fall of Berlin had clambered up the roof of the Reichstag to snatch a Nazi flag … Opps … (In a neat bit of Stalinst-style reworking of the public record, we find the paper has excised this fine work of fiction from its archives.)

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Greetings from … the Queerest Spot on the Jersey Shore

We just got back from our biennial-or-so pilgrimage to Asbury Park, N.J., easily the most written-about, sung-about and fretted-about seaside resort in the continental U.S. Like thousands of other people who have no connection whatsoever to the place, we’ve long been attracted to Asbury Park’s faded grandeur, its beat and forlorn urban landscapes, its abundance of interesting architectural filigree that adorns many vintage structures. It’s the same clinical nostalgia that draws us to Calvert in Robertson County, Texas, where we’ve gone to sip coffee on the town’s once-bustling (once as in the 19th century) main drag and gaze out on the bleak ass-end of nothing. Like Calvert --- whose prime attraction until a few years ago was the mummified remains of an African-American teenage hobo that were kept in a succession of funeral homes for 80 years --- Asbury Park has worked vigorously, and with only marginal success, to trade on its storied past.

Of course, we, like hundreds of thousands of other people, do have a tenuous second-hand virtual connection to the place through our repeated long-ago listenings to Springsteen’s Greetings from Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, his two first and still-best albums (after which it was a slow roll downhill to profundity and mock-heroic poses, though we still dig him). Even then, in the early-to-mid ’70s, the town and the “boardwalk life” that Springsteen simultaneously celebrated and sought to escape were long past their prime, relegated to the dustbin of commerce by the southward extension of the Garden State Parkway in the 1950s and what we always see described as the “race riots” (plural) of the 1960s. Those developments combined to send white vacationers speeding past Asbury Park to beach towns farther down the shore. (Where today, the cities charge what to our Texas populist sensibilities seem to be stiff prices for access to public beaches. [On the other hand, this cuts down on the Latino music blaring in your ear at full crank, and we don’t notice a whole lot of McMansions built right up to the low-tide line.])

By the time we first visited in the mid-’80s, the boardwalk was locked in the full death grip of urban decay. Besides the apparently unkillable Howard Johnson’s restaurant/bar (scene of a wonderful dreamscape in an early Sopranos episode), there was just one other open business on the boardwalk. The famed Palace arcade was still doing business, too, but we had the place to ourselves. The beach was literally deserted, in mid-July, and about the only human life on the boards were a couple of elderly Italian gentlemen positioned like lonely sentinels on park benches hundreds of yards apart, apparently left behind to ensure there were witnesses when the town fell in on itself.

We returned every so often and found Asbury Park’s rebirth always imminent, just over the next big redevelopment scheme or preservation movement. Businesses would open and disappear. The Palace for a while hosted a sort of flea-circus-level rock ‘n’ roll museum full of Springsteen memorabilia, but that went the way of the Tilt-a-Whirl where Bruce’s shirt once got caught. One big project was still-born by the developer’s bankruptcy, leaving the skeleton frame of 10-story building rusting near the boardwalk.

On our last visit a couple of years back, though, things did seem to be picking up. In addition to the occasional wandering crackhead, we noticed a sizable contingent of Euro-tourists clambering over the archeological ruins and muttering stuff like Le Boss a dormi ici. More touristy businesses were open, and the newspapers were full of impassioned letters arguing the pros and cons of demolishing the Stone Pony, the nightclub where Springsteen still occasionally drops in (it stands). A “Save Tillie” campaign also was in full throttle --- “Tillie” being a vintage mural of a proto-Alfred E. Neuman geek that graced the side of the targeted-for-destruction Palace (the arcade was reduced to rubble, but Tillie was indeed saved by being cut out from the wall of the doomed building, and the bricks bearing his likeness now sit in storage). Preservation battles here are elevated to a blood sport, but the possible demise of Tillie had people really worked up about the future of Asbury Park.

But what struck us most, when we went downtown and searched for a pay phone outside an abandoned department store, were the many spruce, muscled-up young men we saw walking their dogs and jogging --- in sufficient numbers to momentarily disquiet our inner Hemingway. Later, the New York Times confirmed it: A phalanx of moneyed gay men form New York and points north had descended on Asbury Park, buying up the relatively cheap Victorians and Colonials and bringing a modicum of refined taste and new money to the hard-bitten town.

Before we returned this year, we were told there were now “rainbows everywhere” and that houses that couldn’t be given away for $20,000 or $30,000 a decade ago were selling for more than $200,000 (actually, we later learned, the median home price is well above $300,000.) The town still seems seedy and beset, but we actually had to be careful not be knocked down by the steady procession of yuppies jogging, biking and rollerblading on the boardwalk. It appeared someone was restarting the abandoned development project, and down the boardwalk the sign in front of a massive new complex going up hailed it as the vanguard of a “new Golden Era” for Asbury Park. And the gay-ified refinement of the downtown seemed to be continuing apace. (But the HoJo’s still lives, dingier than ever, and we detected an especially bad odor in the place when we stepped in briefly to gander at the faded postcards.)

We’re glad for Asbury Park, and we hope the rebirth sticks this time. But we’re afraid it may be over between us. As we shuffled out of town and back next-door to bizarrely clean and affluent Ocean Grove, we found ourselves overcome with wistfulness and burdened by the question that haunts all yuppies: Why didn’t we buy some property here back in 19-- ?

Ah, well. We’ll always have Calvert.

Monday, August 01, 2005

There's Nothing Good on TV Tonight

… Except for Big Fights Boxing Hour on ESPN Classic with boxing analyst/historian Al Bernstein. Last month we watched, for the fourth or fifth time this year, the 1957 welterweight whomp-a-thon in Salinas, Kansas that pitted Sal “The Bayonne Scallion” Scagliamuto against Irving “The Naughty Frenchman” LeGrand, which as you’ll recall LeGrand took on a narrow and still controversial decision. That vigorously contested 12-rounder, as Bernstein noted, “was probably the last time two competent white fighters of comparable skills staged an entertaining fight --- not only in a boxing ring, but in a barroom, on a street corner or while riding a public transit conveyance.” We recall with pleasure the then-novel haute cuisine that LeGrand dished out at his chain of “Naughty Frenchman” cafes in the late '60s, and we were saddened when we heard he had been shot in the head and killed by his fifth wife in a Tahoe motel room in 1972.

Then, two weeks ago, we were privileged to relive the 1966 “Red Harvest in the Garden,” as the middleweight non-title fight between Alceste L. “The L Stands for Love” Williams and Tederick “Country” Davis is remembered by fight fans. The digitalized enhancement of the fuzzy closed-circuit broadcast of the day clearly showed ringside spectators being soaked with blood, sweat and Dixie Peach Pomade as Williams cornered the hapless Davis against the ropes and beat him senseless for a full two minutes. “Some people have claimed that the massive brain hemorrhage Davis suffered a few hours after the fight was caused by the vicious mauling he suffered at Williams’ hands,” Bernstein pointed out. Sadly, Williams’ fight career went straight downhill after the Davis fight, although as a singer fronting his own show band Williams managed to break into the lower rungs of the Top 40 in 1967 with the James Brown knockoff “Lip Blister.” His 1969 heroin overdose ended both his boxing and singing careers.

And just last week we pulled up a chair for Bernstein’s presentation of the grainy, scratchy film of the 1916 heavyweight marathon in San Juan between champion Wee Willie “Little Willie” McGlashin and challenger Irish Jim Leibgott. “Boxing fans,” said Prof. Bernstein, “still marvel at the way the ‘Gaelic Jewboy’ from Pascagoula, Miss. went down 17 times in the 44th round, only to peel himself off the canvass and come back to knock the headstrong Scotsman out in the 58th. And he reportedly was dead drunk at the time!”

So when the kids/grandkids/great-grandkids whine that there’s nothing good on TV this summer, sit 'em down for Big Fights Boxing Hour.