Saturday, December 31, 2005

Draw the Curtains, Fall Asleep on the Couch … And Have a Very Nagin New Year!

We woke up this New Year’s Eve Morn’ full of energy and expectation. We vowed to ourself to follow the example set by our Slampo’s Place Human of the Year for 2005, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who, despite being viciously mugged by reality and finding himself in way over his head (and who wouldn’t have been!), forged along with a kind of bull-headed Bush-ian perseverance that made our jaw go slack with admiration.

Then we settled in with our coffee to read the morning newspaper and immediately fell into a festering funk. The story that sent us spiraling downward dealt with somebody’s big plan to hoist a 9-foot-tall star to the top of the Binz Building as a countdown to midnight, with hopes that said star-raising will evolve into a local tradition to rival the ball-dropping to-do in Times Square.

Ah, come on. We’ve got our own long-established New Year’s Eve tradition in Houston. It’s called the illegal discharging of firearms within the city limits.

The newspaper story included some verbiage from the head of something called the Downtown Entertainment District Alliance (upon reading the title of this organizaiton we were for some reason moved to stand and hum a few bars of La Marseillaise). But instead of the unblinking rah-rah stenographic approach the daily newspaper has traditionally taken to such dubious civic undertakings, we detected a most entertaining tone of sarcasm in the reporting of the star-hoisting and the other World Class enterainment options available hereabouts:

A visit to the city's Web site reveals how bleak the party pickings are: Of the first four "events" listed for today, three are sporting events. The fourth is the Christmas Holiday 2005 Trash Pickup schedule.
Well, as we keep saying, Houston ain’t New Orleans---even now. We're big on picking up the trash here (even when we're not, like last week).

The newspaper then tapped the services of Robert Bruegmann, author of Sprawl: A Compact History (our favorite kind of history), who opined that ...

Houston is more in line with Indianapolis, San Diego, Albuquerque and Phoenix when it comes to holiday revelry.

Oh, the ignominy.

Obviouslky, this Bruegmann has no sensitivity for the feelings of Elyse Lanier.

The Chronicle wiseacres went on to report that the “biggest entertainer on the books in Houston for New Year's Eve is comedian Steve Harvey.” (Much deeper in the paper we found an interview with Mr. Harvey---hey, we woke up real early, but we knew Kid Galahad was on Turner Classics---in which he boasts that “no one funnier” than he will come through Houston [sigh], and that in his New Year’s Eve performances he would be saying something or other nice about Richard Pryor, although when Pryor was still extant and making funny young Steve Harvey was not qualified to carry his jockstrap to the shower, or even clean the screen of his crack pipe.)

Yes, it’s dire. Not even Sharpstown native Robert Earl Keen will be strumming in his hometown tonight.

All the more reason to stay in. Not that we’d be going out. We’ve got Jon Dee Graham’s The Great Battle, and Eddi Reader’s Sings the Songs of Robert Burns, and Richard Thompson’s Front Parlour Ballads, and an almost-fresh bag of unground Community’s Private Reserve (funny how they’ve repackaged the workingman’s coffee of our youth). We’ve got fences to mend, a yard fill of leaves to rake and mulch, a back-upped toilet to unplug and …

OK ... so what time is the Steve Harvey show?

The early one.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Our Murder Year(s), Part II

Even with the number of homicides in Houston expected to be up about 25 percent over 2004 when this strange year sputters to its end, the accumulated butchery will still fall shy of half of what it was in that Record Setting Murder Year of 1981, when residents of all makes and models were putting the boom into Boomtown with a vengeance.

We remember that year, albiet hazily, as it was the very year we snuck into town and, as a junior staff member of a since-discontinued publication had to spend many late evenings between Thanksgiving and New Year’s filling in for the slightly more senior staff members who covered the police beat out of the old Cop Shop at 61 Riesner. Houstonians were being shot, knifed and beaten to death at an alarming rate that holiday season, usually at a clip of a half-dozen or more on weekend evenings, and thus we spent most of our time careening about Baghdad on the Bayou, listening to the police scanner and trying to talk to gruff homicide detectives so we could memorialize these seemingly random deaths with 2- and 3-inch “widgets” in the next morning’s paper.*

Shortly after that the boom began leaking out of Boomtown, and a few years later the balloon fizzled altogether. Homicides and other crimes began dropping to slightly more acceptable levels, and the civic psychosis abated somewhat … until that other memorable Murder Year,1991, when a seeming rash of well-publicized killings---some involving well-off white people who were jacked or taken off in their front yards---turned policing into the hot issue in that year’s mayor race.

That was the year the Bob Lanier was trying to unseat Kathy Whitmire, who had ousted Lanier from the Metro chairmanship for his repeated efforts to delay or kill the rail plan that voters kinda-maybe-sorta had approved. Lanier thought rail was his ticket to ride, but, being a quick study, he soon realized that all those blaring live-from-the-scene TV reports weren’t devoted to chronicling some great anti-Metro fervor, and that in fact most Houstonians don’t get exercised one way or another over the transit agency and its plans, unless they patronize its services (as it remains today). So---voila!---Lanier came up with his “655 Plan,” which proposed to take Metro’s rail set-aside and use it to place said number of new officers on the streets. Or the equivalent of that number through overtime. Something like that. It didn’t help that Whitmire seemed aloof and indifferent to the almost-daily screaming TV reports of the mayhem (losing her African-American base to a black candidate didn’t help, either).

Lanier did put more cops on the street, and crime did fall ion Houston, precipitously, and continued falling through the somewhat mystifying Lee P. Brown Interregnum. But as University of Chicago economist and Freakonomics author Steven Levitt has noted, crime fell everywhere in the United States in the 1990s, even in cities that did not markedly increase police presence or undertake innovative anti-crime strategies. (According to the Justice Department, the nation’s violent crime rate fell to its lowest level ever in 2004.)

Levitt believes that increasing the number of police does contribute to a reduction in crime---perhaps that seems obvious, but the economist says it’s hard to establish causality---as does locking up more people (e.g., the huge surge in the inmate population that Texas and other states experienced during the prison-building frenzy of the late ’80s and ’90s). But Levitt has also famously and controversially posited that the biggest single factor was the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, which resulted in the non-existence of a large pool of potential criminals who would’ve been born to poor, single teen mothers and begun hitting their prime crime-committing years in the early ’90s. Levitt’s theory makes sense to us, based strictly on our Bush-ian intuition, although it is still being vigorously contested, as this recent Wall Street Journal Online piece shows.

Now we’re having another Murder Year in Houston, or perhaps (hopefully) just a Murder Month or two. Whether the recent uptick in killings and other violent crimes is a temporary incongruity, born of one of those recurrent spikes in gang activity and the unprecedented packing-in of hurricane evacuees to apartment complexes with high vacancy rates (which from a non-economic standpoint might not have been the most desirable places to pack ’em in, because high vacancy rates would indicate that people with wherewithal were staying away in droves, most likely ’cause the places were not so cheery to begin with), will be revealed in time. Homicide is the one crime that definitely can’t be prevented by the simple addition of more cops, unless you’d want one stationed at every residence and business in the city.

The mayor and police chief are right in their cautious estimations, in not going overboard in fingering Katrina evacuees (while trying to pry money from FEMA to pay for police overtime … hmmm …), and are responding correctly by addressing the apparent locality of the crime surge (as opposed to chest-beating vows to pour more cops on the streets, willy-nilly). Still, the homicide numbers for November and December** approach the levels of the early 1980s. Those may have been good times for the city, economically, but we doubt anyone is nostalgic for the attendant carnage.

*It’s mostly become a blur, but we do remember one victim clearly---a Hispanic gentleman who took a knife in the chest and fell out smack in the middle of Hillcroft Drive, not far from the apartment we then inhabited. It was unclear whether he had been pushed from a passing vehicle or had been trying to get to or from somewhere on foot when he gave up the ghost. It was a bitterly cold evening, and the poor guy lay sprawled out in the hard street, his work shirt having been torn open by the emergency medical personnel. We strolled over to take a look at the corpse---we suppose that crime scenes were less tightly restricted back then---and since that night we’ve nursed a great hope that we might expire at home in a warm bed.

**Sadly, one of the most recent was the killing of a classmate of our son who was shot in the head during a drug deal at a park connected to an HISD school in an affluent white neighborhood.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Sheer Balls

Does anyone in Houston favor building a new stadium for Major League Soccer, other than Oliver Luck, who has conveniently exited his post as chief officer of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority to assume the presidency of the soon-to-arrive MLS franchise, and Chronicle columnist John P. Lopez, who apparently has taken on a side job as Luck’s publicist?

We’ve not seen or heard of any discernible public sentiment in that direction, but then we don’t hang in the same circles as Luck and Lopez (it's got a ring, don't it?).

Our rule of thumb on these matters, which we formulated long ago, is to wholly discount anything a sports columnist, writer or broadcaster has to say with regard to the construction of news sports venues, because invariably they reduce themselves to shills for the owners of the teams they cover (and cover from a very nice vantage point inaccessible to the average fan), in addition to exhibiting their woeful ignorance of the wide world outside of sports.

Let’s take Lopez. He relates today that Luck has a plan (details to come) for a new “soccer-specific” stadium “that would not be financed like every other sports mansion on the local landscape” in that “financing will not be another tax burden on citizens.”

Excuse me, but isn’t that the argument that was put forward on behalf of Minute Maid Park, the Toyota Center and Reliant Stadium---that none of these facilities would impose an additional burden on the payer of general taxes (sales and property), but rather the load would be saddled on out-of-towners who rent cars and stay in hotels and users of these venues (revenue that hasn't met projections, by the way, thus forcing the authority to take on almost $40 million more in debt last year to forestall its bonds being degraded to junk status). So maybe Luck's plan isn't so all-fire new and different ...

According to Lopez, this “public-private partnership” which he seems to know little about detail-wise (or isn’t willing to “share” with his readers, because maybe that’s not where his loyalties lie at the moment), could involve, as he coyly puts it, “say, HISD.”

No. Somebody needs to stand up and stop that. ASAP. We’re sure we’ll be told it’s been done in other cities and other school districts, etc., and we’re sure there will be no new “tax burden on citizens,” but that’s not what a school district is for. Period. It’s that effin’ simple. (We would unilaterally assign the task of derailing this plan to, say, Chronicle news columnist Ric Ocasek … excuse me, Rick Casey, but since it’s not something that happened in San Antonio 15 years ago he probably couldn’t work up much interest).

In a textbook case of government “empire building,” Oliver Luck and the Sports Authority have been angling for several years to bring an MLS franchise to Houston---a job that by no stretch of the imagination was part of the authority’s initial charge. The Sports Authority should have been shuttered long ago and its bill-paying functions housed in the back of some non-descript office building with a hand-lettered sign on the door. Didn’t County Judge Robert Eckels raise that possibility a while back? What happened with that?

Last year, in his role as the Sports Authority’s chief officer, Luck gave a speech in which he told an East End group that a revamped Robertson Stadium would be a suitable venue for an MLS franchise. There was no mention of a new stadium, according to the Chronicle story still posted on the authority’s Web site. Now that Luck has taken the revolving door to the former San Jose Earthquakes, Robertson Stadium apparently will be good only as temporary home for the MLS. A new stadium must be built. No doubt the owners of the Earthquakes figure Luck is the man to deliver one, and he's already shown them he knows how to handle the media (was he, by any chance, working out this financing plan of which Lopez writes while drawing some of his $200,00 annual paycheck from the Sports Authority?).

Our olfactories aren’t that sensitive anymore, but this has a very bad smell about it.*

*Our prediction: Somewhere along the line opposition to a new “soccer-specific” stadium will be characterized as anti-Hispanic. Watch!

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

They Don’t Make ‘Em Like Him Anymore (Which Is a Good Thing)

Walter Mischer, recipient of an appropriately played send-off on the front page of Tuesday’s daily newspaper, was among the most influential people, if not the most influential person, in late-20th century Houston.

Mischer was the acknowledged King Daddy of the hell-bent-for-leather suburban developers who in the flush years following World War II pushed the city farther and farther out from its core while stretching public resources and turning a very nice profit. But that, it should be noted, was what people wanted at the time, and many still desire (people like our relatives and old friends of our parents who lived in those wood-frame cottages on the east side that we remember as being particularly cold when we made our annual visitations at this time of year). Mischer was responsible for the development of a large swath of the part of town we call home, areas now considered “old” and relatively “close-in,” and through the spread of the municipal utility district concept he left an indelible mark on Harris County, for better or worse. His influence is still strongly felt today, in the ongoing controversies over the Grand Parkway or in the person of Port of Houston kingpin Jim Edmonds.

Mischer, as state senator and former county judge Jon Lindsay told the Chronicle, was a “powerbroker par excellence,” a direct heir to the 8F clique that for so many years met behind closed doors to make decisions for most everyone else in Houston (in those long-ago days when the banks, newspapers, the radio and then TV stations were controlled by locals). For many less-powerful people in Houston, that made the secretive and publicity- averse Mischer something of a Prince of Darkness, the prime local exemplar of those who manipulated public entities and officials for private enrichment. Mischer was an object of fascination for investigative reporters, particularly Pete Brewton of the Houston Post, who found in Mischer one link to the titular entities of his book The Mafia, the CIA and George Bush through what Brewton alleged were Mischer’s longtime ties to New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello (we mention Brewton’s book in the interest of presenting a more, um, fleshed-out portrait of the deceased, not necessarily to endorse his hypotheses, which we had to jog our memory to recall far past the point of the usual necessary jogging, and which we may have nonetheless misconstrued [if so, sorry]).

Mischer had a seemingly inexplicable animus toward Kathy Whitmire, and it would have been interesting if the Chronicle had managed to scare up a quote or two from the ex-mayor. Democracy had sporadically broken out in Houston prior to Whitmire’s becoming mayor, through the election of the elder and junior Hofheinzes, but Whitmire, a woman who had worked her way up through the political (not business) ranks, was for some reason particularly irksome to Mischer and his cronies, Bob Lanier among them. As the Chronicle obit noted, Mischer backed Louie Welch’s unsuccessful comeback bid to unseat Whitmire, and he later supported Lanier in his successful campaign to oust the city’s first (so far only) female mayor. Prior to that, Mischer even constructed a candidate mostly out of whole cloth to run against Whitmire (the guy, who had several pressing personal problems that went unrevealed to the public, was badly beaten). It is mildly interesting that Mischer, though past his heyday, backed both Lanier and Bill White, each of whom turned out to be a much bigger liberal than Whitmire ever aspired to be.

It’s impossible to think of someone in the city now comparable to what Mischer was to Houston in the 1960s through ’80s.

And that’s progress.

Comments of any length are welcome at the e-mail address found in the upper right-hand corner.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Mayor White Dances, FEMA Fiddles, and Waiter, Can We Get the Check?

Channel 13 had an interesting story Sunday on Mayor Bill White’s weekend ride-along with patrol cops to some of the half-dozen high-crime “hot spots” among west- and southwest-side apartment complexes. Without providing figures, probably because no such figures exist, the station reported that Katrina evacuees are to blame for a “noticeable part” of a recent rise in murders, robberies and aggravated assaults (while noting that they are not solely responsible, and that the numbers of these crimes began inching upward before the hurricane, and that the city had seen an overall decrease in violent crimes over the past two years).

So how “noticeable” a part have New Orleans evacuees played in any real rise in crime (that is, statistically conclusive, and thus taking into account the unprecedented, almost overnight jump in the city’s population after the first week of September)? Is that even quantifiable? And, more to the point, is this something we should be worried about?

It’s a question that obviously has crossed Bill White’s mind, as Channel 13 quoted the mayor vowing to send any evacuees who dare to commit a crime in this jurisdiction straight to the hoosegow or remand them to Louisiana.

The television report followed what we thought was a rather startling figure that was tucked down in a story last week by the Chronicle’s Eric Berger and Jennifer Radcliffe on White’s hanging the “No Vacancy” sign on the city’s offer of 12 months of free rent and utilities for evacuees.

The story noted that the city had written out “up to 500” of the vouchers a day in the previous month, without seeing any drop in the number of evacuees housed in local hotels (this may have been previously reported in the Chronicle or elsewhere---we tend to limit our intake of local media reportage so we can work on getting our handicap below 20). According to the Berger and Radcliffe:
That's because the majority of those seeking apartments have just arrived in Houston. During each of the last five days, half to nearly three-quarters of the families signing up for vouchers at the Disaster Recovery Center in Houston had been in the area for three days or less, officials said.
So that means it’s possible that in just that particular workweek evacuee families were arriving in Houston at a clip of up to 250 to 375 a day, presumably to take advantage of the city’s very generous free rent offer (and are these folks still considered “hurricane evacuees,” a good three months after the hurricane?).


No wonder the traffic in southwest Houston is about to send us over the edge.

White seems to remain confident that FEMA will come though and extend its recently imposed March 1 deadline for ending reimbursement of the city’s 12-month rent program, even as he cracks jokes at FEMA’s expense. We hope he’s right. The mayor has invested quite a bit of his political standing in the city’s generous welcoming of evacuees, and for the most part it’s paid off in a bounty of good will and favorable publicity for Houston, and for him. White’s also done a good job of ensuring that blame for any potential debacle is laid at FEMA’s door, where it would seem to belong, although we’ve found that such well-composed narratives often turn out to be less pat and more complicated than they initially appear.

But we’ll see.

A point or two regarding Bush’s Sunday night speech: If you’re still trying to lay out a justification for a war two and a half years into it, isn’t that an admission right there that the undertaking was ill-advised? But as Bush suggested, those arguments are past tense, and at the moment it comes down to victory or defeat, whatever “victory” may mean … and we suspect at this stage it will mean a whole lot less than Bush originally envisioned.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Put-Upon Victim Speaks Truth to Power

Like you, we felt a faint twinge of sympathy earlier this week when we learned of the plight of Ken Lay. We knew already that Lay faces federal fraud and conspiracy charges; what we didn’t know is that Lay, like the 2,800 people who died in the World Trade Center, is the victim of an organized terror plot. As he told the Forum Club of Houston, quoting the always quotable Winston Churchill, in a Churchillian cadence:
"Truth is a great rock. Whether it will continue to be submerged by a wave, a wave of terror by the Enron Task Force, will be determined by former Enron employees."
This came in the course of a speech in which the former Enron CEO rehearsed his market-tested courtroom defense before an audience of his peers, or what used to be his peers, as he prepares to stand trial next month. An apparently agonizingly long portion of his talk was devoted to his contention that he is being persecuted, in ways both immoral and illegal, by the above-cited task force, a notion that most likely will be allowed only a subliminal airing in the courtroom and thus is being offered up to influence the court of public opinion, in the person of would-be jurors, former employees and other potential sympathizers (you’re out there somewhere, just not easily visible).

Lay’s well-burnished courtroom defense will be to blame Enron’s vertiginous fall on the sneaky criminality of the arch-mastermind “Andy” (a big-time criminal indeed) and the subsequent “run on the bank” that sent the company he put together and nurtured to an unseemly P/E ratio into an irreversible downward spiral before Lay had time to grab his ass and holler for his mama.

The sophisticates rolled their eyes and chuckled up their sleeves at these patently transparent rationalizations, justifications and blame-shiftings, yet we strongly suspect that Ken Lay’s exercise in victimology will work. Almost everyone in North America, including Lay and his wife, knows that he’s guilty of something (world’s biggest fuck-up, world’s worst chief executive officer, world’s dumbest ass, world’s most clueless captain of industry, world’s most blindly faithful believer ... ), but we’d bet the $8 or $9 we cleared (after taxes and expenses) on our ill-advised purchase of Azurix shares that the federal prosecutors will be unable to persuade a jury that that something meets the definition of a crime (or crimes).

Enron is a tragicomedy, with many more comedic elements than tragic ones, and Lay delivered only the most recent farcical turn when he implored his former Enron employees to rise up and rally to tell the world his company actually was a “substantial” one (as it indeed was at one time) with “values and vision” (if you say so, sport) and thus push back the terror wave and un-submerge that rock of truth. (This plea brings to our mind a former governor of Louisiana whose signature, when asking the people for their support, was to look beseechingly into the camera and say, “Won’t you he’p me?”)

We'd be surprised if any ex-employees heed the call. They, we would imagine, have been used enough by Ken Lay (could be wrong, of course---some people just can't stop believin').

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Nobody Ever Moved to Houston to Read No Damn Book

Back in another lifetime, when we drew a meager (very) paycheck from a since-discontinued publication that operated out of a building at Highway 59 and the West Loop in southwest Houston, we were summoned to attend a news conference early one morning at a hotel near Hobby Airport. The holder of the news conference was John Tower. We’ve long forgotten the topic, and we can’t remember if Tower was then still the lone Republican U.S. senator from Texas or had taken leave of that office and was on his way to the public humiliation that capped his career. We do remember one thing he said, though.

Tower was way late to his own event---we’re probably embellishing this faint memory, but we seem to recall that from close-up he still reeked of the previous evening’s consumption---and when he finally tottered up to the dais, he spread his arms, grinned broadly and declared, “Well, it’s good to be back in this very erudite city once again.” *

That was the first time we had heard Houston referred to as a “very erudite city.” And it remains the only time.

We weren’t sure what Tower intended by that throwaway remark, and we didn’t have the opportunity to ask that morning, as there were notes to be taken and supposedly more pressing questions to be posed. We figured that he probably was just kidding, giving a hung-over wink to his pals in the small audience, but we also considered the possibility that he was being wickedly sarcastic. After all, he was something of an erudite fellow himself, or had pretensions thereof (with his Savile Row suits and detachable collars, etc.), having attended the London School of Economics and Politics and been a professor of political science for a long spell. And although Tower was born in and raised a bit in Houston and graduated from high school in Beaumont, he chose to base himself in Dallas, where to this day the locals look down their long thin noses at the yokels in Baghdad on the Bayou, as newspaper columnists of days past called our town (how come nobody calls it that no mo’?).

Or maybe he was being sincere, in a chummy and early-morning woozy way, and through his long years of public service had recognized something in our town that had escaped the attention of less discerning observers.

We had occasion recently to again ponder Tower’s salutation when we learned of Houston’s showing in the annual literacy rankings of cities with populations larger than 250,000 as compiled by John J. Miller, the president of Central Connecticut State University (“the Harvard of central Connecticut,” as Jon Stewart called it). The survey weighed several factors to formulate what Miller calls “one critical index of our nation’s health” (don’t ask us how a university president has time to compile a study).

Baghdad on the Bayou was ranked 53rd, sandwiched between No. 52 Mesa, Az. (“The Little Phoenix of Maricopa County”) and No. 54 Phoenix (“The Big Mesa of Maricopa County”) out of 69 U.S. cities (in 2004 Houston came in 63rd among 79 cities ranked).

This year’s Top 10 was populated by the usual suspects associated with books and computers and other manifestations of “literacy”---Seattle, Minneapolis, Washington and San Francisco---but also included Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, smallish tank towns that usually call to our mind “National League,” not “literate.”

In Texas, Austin was tops at No 16, followed by Fort Worth (tied w/ Las Vegas for 44th) and Dallas at 48th.

Houston ranked behind Jacksonville, Fla. (“The Birthplace of Hooters”), but ahead of No. 63 Arlington (“The City With Plenty of Parking Spaces”), No 64 San Antonio (“The Heavy Metal Music Capital of North America”), No. 67 Corpus Christi (“We’ve Got a Nice Beach”) and No. 68 El Paso (“Welcome to the End of Earth”), which barely escaped its last place finish of 2004, thanks to Stockton, Cal.

Most of the cities in the lower third of the rankings are in California or Texas and have large immigrant populations, which we would surmise accounts for their poor showings (Los Angeles clocked in at No. 60). Survey compiler Miller did not see fit to include “a large supply of cheap labor” as a criterion.

What he did consider were the number of a city’s bookstores per capita, the educational attainment of its residents, its Internet and library resources, the newspaper circulation in the metropolis and the number of magazines and journals published there.

We’re generally suspicious of these type of ginned-up surveys (“Fattest City,” etc.), especially one that proposes to quantify something as seemingly intangible as a city’s literacy, so we thought we’d take a closer look at the categories and how Houston fared:

Bookstores, based on both retail outlets and rare and used bookstores, as well as the number of members of the American Booksellers Association per 10,000 population: Houston managed a tie at 39th with Nashville, ahead of Dallas but behind Fort Worth and Oklahoma City. According to Miller, “The presence of retail book stores is positively associated with quality of libraries. So, it is not a question of whether people buy books or check them out: they do both or neither.”

Education level, based on the percentage of adult residents with an educational level of 8th grade or less, the percentage of adults with a high school diploma or higher and the percentage with a bachelor’s degree or higher: Houston showed up, barely, in 51st place. No. 1 was Colorado Springs.

Internet resources, based on the availability of library Internet connections and commercial and public wireless Internet access, the number of Internet book orders per capita and the percentage of adults who have read a newspaper on the Internet: Here Houston scored best, tied for No. 24 with very erudite Colorado Springs.

Library resources, based on the per-capita number of branch libraries, volumes held in libraries, circulation of material, library and school media professionals: Houston again nailed down the No. 51 slot; St. Louis (!) and Cleveland (?!) were ranked Nos.1 and 2.

Newspaper circulation, weekday and Sunday, divided by total city population: No. 50, alhtough the Houston Chronicle has retained its ranking, as you may have read.

Periodical publishers, based on number of magazine publishers with circulations over 2,500 and the number of journals published with circulations over 500 per 100,000 population: We’re No. 49!

Hmmm … there does seem to be a pronounced consistency to Houston's place in the pecking orders.

We must now conclude that in all likelihood our man Tower was poking fun at us.

Or else he thought he was in Fort Worth.

*Writing this led us to muse on how unlikely it would be for someone like Tower to be elected to a statewide office in Texas today.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Ain't Dark Yet (Keep Tellin' Yourself That)

Will Baby Boomers ever just shut the fuck up and slip away gracefully to the Old Folks Home?

Apparently not. Today’s Parade magazine (available in the deep recesses of Sunday newspapers everywhere) brings news that “Life Begins at 60.” This is one of those periodic generational updates from noted fabulist Gail Sheehy, who’s made a career of this sort of facile psychologizing (Passages, etc.) for nigh on a generation.

We didn’t have time to read the entire Parade article, because as a mid-range Baby Boomer* we know that our days are not limitless and the horizon draws close, and on top of that we just realized that we had stepped in some dogshit earlier when we were out poking around in the yard, and we gotta go take care of that business, soon.

Yet we did pause to peruse Parade’s gallery of celebrities who are turning 60 next year (the maximum age of the Baby Boom cohort), and we think that their scalpeled and Botoxed and Collagened faces (OK, not all of ‘em, but lots more than you’d think) argue strongly against Sheehy’s grandiloquent declaration. (Didn’t, by the way, life used to begin at 30? What happened with that?) These mug shots would actually seem to indicate that life is pretty much over at 60, that from there it’s just a quick roll downhill to mere oblivion and the waiting boneyard. Or many hours of plastic surgery.

There’s Reggie Jackson, now truly looking like Mr. October. Guy hasn’t hit a home run in 18 or 19 years, if we’re not mistaken. And Rollie Fingers, still with the mustache thing, but he hasn’t ambled out of the bullpen in a good two decades. Then there’s Donovan---Donovan!---who hasn’t charted a song since 1966 or 1967. Bill Clinton (not president for five years) Cher (yikes!). Sally Field (ditto). Sylvester Stallone, whose face gives us the mean shivers. Crackpot filmmaker Oliver Stone. Connie Chung (is she still trying to get pregnant?). Michael Milken, Tyne Daily and Jimmy Buffett, etc.

All these disparate personages shackled together on Parade’s geriatric chain gang have one thing in common: Their best work is behind them, whether it was relief pitching, singing Hurdy Gurdy Man, enacting welfare reform or using junk bonds to finance questionable corporate acquisitions.

Sheehy calls ages 50 through 75 “The Age of Mastery,” a concept we did not raise this morning when we spoke in the driveway with our 56-year-old (we think) next-door neighbor, who exhausted most of our conversational moment recounting in very fine detail his recent five-day stay in the VA Hospital. His confinement was occasioned by a urinary tract infection of unknown origin that caused, among other symptoms, his “right nutsack” to swell up “as big as a goddamn avocado.” (Maybe it was his left nutsack, we weren’t taking notes.)

He says he’s fine now, but it goes without saying that his longheld dream of dunking a basketball at age 60 has been dashed.

*But not “old.” Not us. No way. Never.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Here Everything’s Better. Almost Everything.

A day that will live in infamy: Pear Harbor (1941), Nolan Ryan signs with the Rangers (1988), Drayton McLane declines to enter salary arbitration with Roger Clemens (2005).

The scale of the tragedies that posterity will commemorate on December 7 has progressively diminished over the years, to the point that the most recent falls well short of even the loosest definitions of tragedy. It may not even qualify as bad news. We wish we could pretend that we’re exercised and wrought over Clemens’ probable departure from the hometeam, but we aren’t. For starters, we’re a fair-weather fan, at best, and long ago shed any sentimentality we once harbored in regard to professional sport (it was about 1967). And on a merely personal level, we never much cared for Clemens before he signed with the Astros, believing him to be the prickish sort, although we of course admired his competitive drive and the way he tried to drill Mike Piazza with the broken bat, etc. We’ve also found his shill-ery for the San Antonio-based supermarket chain to be bothersome, in a strictly aesthetic sense (i.e., “not pretty”).

Public opinion seems mixed, at least the public opinion of poor Richard Justice, the Houston Chronicle’s usually astute sports columnist, who was so torn by the Astros’ non-move that he wended his way through many inches of newsprint coming down firmly on both sides of the issue. His point, we think, was that while there were sound reasons for tightwad McLane to relinquish Clemens, the Astros owner should have made the effort to come to terms with possibly broke-down pitcher (as his last two starts would suggest) because … he should have. Justice had already secured his credentials as a world-class sentimentalist with his heartfelt brief on behalf of oldster Jeff Bagwell’s insertion into the line-up as designated hitter for the World Series. That worked out well, you’ll recall (at least Justice refrained from padding out his Clemens column with the revelation that he had recently learned the meaning of the word ambit.)

Another small tragedy befell Houston on this December 7, one that we found more troubling than the probable loss of the seven-time Cy Young winner and noted backyard grill-ist. It happened near our neck of the metropolis, on the campus of Westbury High School, where 27 students were arrested after what was variously described by the media as a brawl or a mini-riot that reportedly pitted students from Houston and against evacuee students from New Orleans (we use the word “students” simply for lack of a better shorthand description, because you can safely bet the mortgage that none of those involved have done any studying for years, if ever).

While this unfortunate episode (unfortunate for the school, the school district, and the great majority of Westbury students who were trying to keep their heads down and escape into the larger world with a high school diploma), has deservedly received extensive media attention, we’d like to point out something that is perhaps so obvious that it goes without saying: that at bottom this incident was about absolutely nothing, nothing except the ongoing infantilization of a too-large portion of our African-American youth, another sorry example of what the comedian Dave Chappelle has called “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong.”

As summed up by one Anthony Brassey, identified as a Westbury alumnus, for Channel 2:
“As for the Houston kids, they are taking it like, ‘This is my home. You can’t take over my home.' New Orleans kids are like, ‘They put us over here, so since we’re over here, we’re going to take over.' ”
Which, in its sheer incomprehensibility, just about explains it all.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Greatest Christmas Song in Christendom

When we were a boy in the previous century, in that time before teenagers were downloading Internet porn on their cell phones, the annual and much-anticipated commencement of the Christmas season (as it was then known) was signified by the first playing of Charles Brown’s Please Come Home for Christmas on the radio. This usually did not occur until the first week of December, at the earliest. From then until New Year’s, the song was played incessantly on the town’s Top 40 station. It was such a beloved local standard that it occasionally could be heard on the easy-listening and country-western stations, too.

We just assumed this was a phenomenon solely endemic to southwest Louisiana, and that Brown was a local product, a purveyor of the deeply soulful la-la that would much later be categorized as “Swamp Pop” by rock-n-roll academicians, or whoever. We were wrong on the second count, we would learn, but our first assumption may have been close to correct. In any case, the deejays of KVOL (“1330 on your dial”) were most certainly on to something: There is nothing more sublime in the annals of American popular music than the opening of Please Come Home for Christmas: the solemn three chimes--- dingdingding --- and then Brown’s warm and expressive voice bringing you the news as the music rolls forward: Bells will be ringing ...

As a child, the song was like wallpaper to us: It meant nothing more than a familiar signpost to an upcoming holiday from school, another trip back to the ancestral home in East Texas, presents under the tree, etc. Then, as a young man, we acquired a perhaps superficial first-hand appreciation of the tragedy of which Brown sang---I’m not be getting any this Christmas---which, as far as tragedies go, pales next to the Holocaust or the Great Terror or a tsunami that kills tens of thousands, yet all tragedies are at some level personal ones, as somebody said.

More recently, as we stumbled into the autumn of our years, we arrived at a much deeper appreciation of Please Come Home for Christmas, of the overwhelming sense of loss and longing that informs Brown’s song. We’ve probably heard it a thousand times, yet Please Come Home for Christmas can still move us and stir all variety of emotions, if not quite drive us to our knees or bring us to tears. Neither time nor the Eagles’ pallid remake of some years ago has diminished the power of Brown’s words and voice.

Charles Brown was not from Louisiana but from Texas City, born there in 1922. Most biographies say he became a teacher of math and chemistry, but like many talented and ambitious African-Americans of the time he got the hell out of segregated 1940s Texas and made his way to California, where he launched a successful R&B career that carried him through the mid-’50s, with songs such as “Trouble Blues” and “Black Night.” While Brown himself reportedly was a cheery and decorous individual, in his music “the leitmotif was unremitting pain and misery,” wrote Jerry Wexler in the notes to Brown’s 1990 album All My Life. By the late '50s he had, as they say, fallen off the charts, and at some later point he was reduced to stoop labor to make ends meet. Before his death in 1999, though, he had achieved a nice and deserved comeback with the help of Bonnie Raitt and others, and All My Life was testament to the durability of his awesome talent.

Please Come Home for Christmas, as far as we know, has never been included on those “100 Greatest Songs of All-Time” lists complied by Rolling Stone or the American Academy of List Compilers. It wasn’t even mentioned in Brown’s obituaries (Merry Christmas, Baby, a pleasant but nothing-spectacular Brown offering, was). That’s wrong, but the sentiment of the song, particularly its last verse, with its professed hope for delivery and the triumphant little flourish of resolution tacked on the end, speaks to the true spirit of Christmas better than any song we can think of, and it’s a sentiment that can be embraced not only by the Christian but by the Muslim, the Jew and the Hindoo, too, as well the agnostic and atheist. Even the Scientologist.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

¡Voto para mí! ¡No soy Iraní! (And Smile!)

We suppose you can’t hold a candidate responsible for something said by a 71-year-old aunt, especially something “shouted” during a demonstration to protest a news conference (in other words, a pseudo-event born of another pseudo-event).

Yet as reported by the Houston Chronicle’s able education writer, Jason Spencer, the comments of Dolores Torres on behalf of her niece, northside Houston school board hopeful Anne Flores Santiago, suggest something more than an impromptu burst of passion by a doting relative.

According to the Chronicle, Torres was one of a dozen or so Santiago supporters who were protesting during a news conference staged by an “influential group of Hispanic Democrats” who appear to be backing Natasha Kamrani, Santiago’s non-Hispanic opponent in next Saturday’s runoff (we’ll pass on trying to summarize the nature of this influential group’s complaint against Santiago, which we suspect at bottom has something to do with the often unfathomable configurations and reconfigurations of local Hispanic politics-playing [which, on slightly further reflection, are not much different than those of Euro-American or African-American politics-playing]).

Ms. Torres apparently was so incensed by the Harris County Tejano Democrats’ criticism of Santiago that she was moved to loudly broadcast the following endorsement of her niece:
“She’s Hispanic and she grew up in the community. She’s not Iranian.”
She elaborated:
“Foreigners are coming in not knowing the community. Anne grew up here.”
It turns out that Ms. Kamrani is not Iranian, either, according to the Chronicle: She was born in Ohio, of an Iranian-born father and “a mother from Kentucky.”

While we wouldn’t dismiss the importance of an elected official having roots in the community she represents, we have to wonder whether Ms. Torres’ classification of Kamrani was wholly her own invention, a result of her intensive but ultimately faulty opposition research, or whether it was reflective of a theme that the Santiago campaign has bandied about the community to selected audiences---that is, those that don’t ordinarily include newspaper and television reporters.

Whether Ms. Santiago disavows the comments of her aunt was left unaddressed in the Chronicle story. She also was not available to speak to the insinuation/allegation/whatever lodged by the Tejano Democrats, instead leaving that task (sort of) to a spokesman.

We don’t reside in District I and thus have no dog in this hunt, but we most assuredly would not vote for any candidate for a school trusteeship who feels it necessary to have a spokesman (or spokeswoman, spokesperson, spokeshuman, etc.) do their speaking for them.

As for Kamrani’s ethnicity/nationality/whatever, we would hope that Ms. Torres and all others who seek to raise the issue of “foreignness” will heed the Chronicle’s sultry-eyed Cultural Coach (our stylebook dictates that we upper-case this vaguely Orwellian self-designated title), who in her latest installment advises that this holiday season is a time to embrace cultural differences and to “smile, whenever possible.”

A smile, says the coach, “can open closed doors---and narrow minds.”

That’s particularly sage counsel for these divisive times, when the lion resolutely refuses to lie with the lamb, the Sunni and the Shi’a cannot come to terms, and the Tejano openly scorns the Cincinnati-born half-Iranian foreigner.

(And God bless the lil’ schoolchildren of HISD.)