Sunday, December 31, 2006

All That We Know

Rolling through Dillard’s at the Galleria on Saturday, window shopping in the shoe department, we noticed two conspicuously rough-looking characters who also were checking out the foot apparel. They kind of looked alike---both unshaven and heavily bearded, wearing ball caps and jeans and T-shirts and mud-caked work boots, and both pumped-up with huge, deeply carved show muscles---except one was tall, in the 6-foot-2 or 6-foot-3 range, the other was scaled down a bit, more in our height cohort but seemingly twice as wide. They stood out among the wan yuppies trying on the Timberlands, and we figured them for iron-pumping firemen or maybe a sibling contractor team, since they seemed to have a facial resemblance and smelled like they had been nail-gunning wallboard all day, or maybe they were the last native English-speakers running a jackhammer in Harris County.

We inwardly flinched when the taller one stretched over us to pull down a display shoe, our reptilian brain misguidedly signaling an imminent beatdown of our spindly, decrepit self by this bad customer.

“S’cuse me,” said the hairy gent, and we did.

Later, after we made our purchase---a “Portuguese style” flannel shirt stitched in El Salvador---and had headed out the door, we saw the two guys walking ahead of us in the parking lot. They were strolling side-by-side, holding hands and giving each other little smooches on the cheek as they headed to their vehicle, and as we loped up from behind a West U-type mom and her teenage daughter came at us from the opposite direction, both averting their eyes as they walked up to the same-sex couple and then quickly swiveling their heads once past.

We locked eyes with West U mom after she re-swivled. We shrugged. She shrugged.

Reminding us, again, as we always tell the lil’ chi’ren: It’s a big, wide world.

And that’s all we kn …

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Ben Reyes: You Can’t Go Home Again, According to UH Sociologist

We enjoyed the coverage of the relaxed, remorseful and clear-eyed Ben Reyes’ release from a Houston halfway house on Friday, although we’re wondering what happened to that old-man’s ponytail he was sporting when he was cut loose from the Big House earlier this year. (Maybe it’s just us, but did we not detect a glint in the old boy’s eye?)

Whatever you think about the FBI-stung former councilman, you’ve got to admire the way Reyes manned-up and did his time, without whining about the injustice of it all (at least publicly, as far as we know---we weren’t his cellmate). We hope he lands that construction job he wants, although being a citizen of the United States may render him unqualified for the work.

The Houston Chronicle, in effort to invest the occasion with more gravity than it demanded, engaged the services of Nestor Rodriguez, the University of Houston sociologist and quote-generating mechanism who’s becoming known in some quarters as “the Poor Man’s Bob Stein” (y’know, he’s a liberal arts perfesser---a Hispanic one, to boot---and in the Chronicle handbook liberal arts perfesser=”smart” and “knowledgeable,” on any and all subjects) to add some supposed perspective. According to Rodriguez
"It's a different Houston than when Ben Reyes started as a councilmember … It's more of a global city than it was before. Almost half of our Hispanic population now is foreign-born. There are leaders in the immigrant community now that don't even identify now with the U.S. political structure" [emphasis added].
Whoa, daddy. What you say?

Now, we don’t necessarily buy the truthiness of that observation. In fact, we hope the perfesser knows jack-squat of which he speaks. But we fear that he’s indeed right, or thereabouts, and we assume the “structure” with which these immigrant community leaders identify is the one south of the border, the one that barely supports the underpinnings of a civil society, the one in the land of la mordida and beheadings and kidnappings and round-the-clock unrest in the streets and melees at the presidential inaugural.

And they wonder why we’re pissed off about illegal immigration.

Friday, December 29, 2006

The Imam Can’t Bust Our Music: Another Signpost in the Continuing Crisis of Islam

From the story in Friday’s New York Times on the Ethiopian-aided ouster (for at least a day or two) of the Union of Islamic Courts militiamen from Mogadishu, capital of a mostly Muslim “nation” called Somalia:
The Islamist leaders may also have miscalculated the appetite among Somalis for the harsh brand of Islam they were pushing. On Thursday, to celebrate the departure of the Islamists, many Mogadishu residents stuffed their mouths with khat, a mildly narcotic plant the Islamists had outlawed, and cranked up Western music, which some clerics had tried to ban.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Why We Travel by Land, Whenever Possible

Potentially disturbing information reported by Rad Sallee in the Houston Chronicle’s story on the luggage theft from Bush Intercontinental Airport:
Some of the [68] bags reportedly came through Terminal D, which handles most international flights. There, arriving passengers pick up their baggage in a customs area closed to the public. It was not clear how thieves obtained access there, if they did.
If true, that strongly suggests an inside job, which we suppose is slightly more reassuring than the notion that random unauthorized individuals were able to mosey up to the baggage carousel in a restricted area and make off with passengers’ dirty clothes.

Either way, it’s breach of security, no?

This at the facility managed by the city department that earlier this year refused to divulge information on bonuses paid to employees, citing a legal department opinion that disclosure of such “could pose security and terrorism risks.”

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto … Tell ’Em James Brown Sent You

From a recent profile by Jonathan Lethem in Rolling Stone:
This is a child who ate "salad we found in the woods" in his first years, a child who was sent home from school---in the rural South---for "insufficient clothes" (i.e., potato sacks). This is a teenager who was nearly electrocuted by a pair of white men who whimsically invited him to touch a car battery they were fooling with. This is a man who, during his incarceration in the 1980s, long after he'd drowned his nightmare of "insufficient clothes" in velvet and fur and leather and jeweled cuff links, was found to be hiding tens of thousands of dollars in cash in his prison cell, an expression of a certainty that society was merely a thin fiction covering a harsh jungle of desolation and violence, and if James Brown wasn't looking out for James Brown, no one was.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Project Row Houses: Not On Our Holiday Itinerary

We finally contracted the Christmas spirit, at least enough to get us up and about and putting our dollars in circulation. This spending and buying made us happy, and we vowed to let nothing shatter the illusion---not the cloud ceiling that seems to have been hanging just above our eyes for days, or the asshole-to-elbow traffic, or the stark realization that almost everyone we saw in a particular crowded commercial establishment was engaged in conversation on his or her cell phone.

Then we slipped up and read an editorial in the Houston Chronicle. Our Christmas cheer vanished.

The work in question was another in the editorial writers’ attempts to foist cultural enlightenment on readers, this time through the suggestion that this season would be an especially good time for outlanders to visit the Project Row Houses thing-a-ma-bob in the Third Ward. The suggestion was occasioned by the news earlier this month that “Third Ward, and the whole city, got an early Christmas gift” (we’re not the only hack working a tortured Christmas angle) when the Houston City Council approved a $975,000 "zero interest performance-based loan" to the non-profit Project Row Houses for the addition of 16 low-income rental units.

As the editorial explained, quoting a city housing official, a no-interest performance-based loan requires no repayment “if the nonprofits who [sic] get them care for their properties and use them as expected.”

So “gift” certainly is the correct terminology here.

The editorial came hard on the heels of a very approving profile of Project Row Houses in the Sunday New York Times, which called it possibly “the most impressive and visionary public art project in the country" and was generous in its depiction of Rick Lowe, the “lanky, amiable, remarkably youthful-looking 45-year-old artist” who founded the project.

Now we don’t have enough personal knowledge of Project Row Houses to judge whether it’s good, bad or indifferent. We probably should just assume, based on all the laudatory media coverage it’s received over the past decade or so, that Project Row Houses’ melding of “art” and neighborhood revitalization is as wonderful as advertised.

It all comes cloaked in a rhetorical finery that makes it almost impossible to question, anyway, without sounding like a mean-spirited crank.

Except … we know from long experience that when any person or institution gets the uniformly favorable and unquestioning treatment from the media---especially in Houston---he, she or it is nowhere near all that he, she or it is cracked up to be. This is an iron-clad rule, to which there are no exceptions. (We’d cite Enron as Exhibit A, but, hell, that’s ancient history.)

And somehow, in its giddy celebration of Project Row Houses’ big score at City Hall, the Chronicle failed to note a somewhat discouraging word about the project that was buried back in the newspaper a month ago. That was the “news” that Project Row House’s longtime financial director, Lajuanda Malone, had pleaded guilty to felony theft of more than $200,000 from the nonprofit and was tagged, as the paper put it in an uncharacteristically raffish turn of phrase, with “10 years in the state penitentiary” (is there not more than one?).

This was a very odd story. It appeared more than a month after Ms. Malone copped her plea---thus qualifying it not as “news” but as “olds,” as the jesters at blogHouston call such late-breaking items---and it was tamped back in the “Arts” page of the paper’s Sunday Zest section. Furthermore, as they say in law school, it was written not by a real reporter but by the paper’s art critic, in an unusual style that wouldn’t pass muster in a high-school journalism class. The story did offer some juicy bits that were screaming for a fleshing-out:

Prosecutor Lester Blizzard, chief of major fraud division in the District Attorney's office, said the actual amount was closer to $300,000, taken over a period of about five years. Malone was issued a credit card in Project Row Houses' name, Blizzard said.

"She proceeded to run up personal expenses for luxury items, things like vacations and tickets to (San Antonio) Spurs games.

(We notice that Malone is still listed as financial administrator on the Project Row Houses’ Web site, along with a link to her email address.)

We can only assume that this story was previously broken or covered by other media and the Chronicle was playing catch-up and burying the story. Otherwise, there’d be no excuse for it not to be on page one.

“Closer to $300,000” is a major theft and breach of the public trust, particularly for a non-profit that, according to its IRS filings, took in revenue of between $1.07 million and $925,000 annually from 2001 through 2003.

The New York Times reporter did take note of the unfortunate incident, sort of, in this chummy aside:
I said I had read that a woman, a former finance administrator for Project Row Houses, recently pleaded guilty to stealing more than $200,000 and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. [A former Project Row Houses resident] paused, then said: “I remember a different woman taking something when she left. We were creating a set of value systems, a community, and sometimes people take from their community anyway. The amazing thing was that Rick never got mad. I would say, ‘It’s so wrong!’ And he just said, ‘Yeah, it happens; that’s part of working with people.’ ”
Now we wonder what happened with that “different woman.” And whether there was any discussion by city council of Lajuanda Malone’s theft and the apparent lack of oversight at Project Row Houses before the terms of this “loan” were approved (surely there was, and we just were not apprised of it).

What really got us about this story was the non-explanation offered by the apparently not-so-amiable Lowe, who told the Chronicle’s compliant art critic:
"It's a legal matter, and I'm not going to discuss it … We have a new executive director and new leadership. (This issue) is behind us. We are moving and rolling and in good shape."
Yeah, man, you’re an artist, a visionary. You can’t be bothered with explaining a serious theft from a non-profit that subsists on the kindness of taxpayers and charitable foundations.

That’s for suckers.

Monday, December 18, 2006

More Songs That Made Christmas Great

Last year at this time we were in a mellow mood and were moved to write of our long relationship with Charles Brown’s Please Come Home for Christmas, which as we pointed out is the undisputed Greatest Christmas Song in Christendom (not an opinion but an empirically verifiable fact)---a standard that surpasses even Silent Night in its narcoticizing power.

This year we’ve had difficulty getting in to the swing of the season, for some reason, and thus have been unable to fully participate in the rituals of rabid consumption that make this the most wonderful time of the year.

Maybe it’s that we’ve yet to hear Please Come Home for Christmas, except as done by the Eagles---twice, most recently on late Friday afternoon at a Starbucks. That’s the gay version, as the kids say, and it makes us blue to realize that the genius of Charles Brown has been shunned in favor of this tepid, half-assed, don’t-get-it remake.

Maybe it was belatedly learning of the death of George W.S. Trow and the subsequent and probably unrelated passing of Ahmet Ertegun, whose life was a monument to unforced, naturally occurring, non-quota bearing, non-legislated and non-dictated multiculturalism (as has been naturally occurring since we began marking time).

Or maybe it was the sweat rolling off of our broad forehead as we clambered up to the roof Saturday to string lights in the 80-degree weather. We hate to have to run the air conditioning at Christmastime and get ensnared in the global-warming feedback loop.

Whatever the reason, we’ve tried to force-march our self into the spirit by playing some of our favorite holiday sides, few of which come close to the majesty of Please Come Home for Christmas (which we must hear, unbidden, on the radio, for the season to truly commence) but all of which say to us, “Hey, man, it’s time to get down to the Meyerland Mall and see if you can find a parking spot, and if your luck holds you won’t encounter any parking-lot robbers,” etc.

The very first number that comes to mind is afore-mentioned Mr. Brown’s very mellow Merry Christmas, Baby, a relatively unremarkable song save for these lines: "Merry Christmas, baby/Sure been good to me/Ain’t had a drink all morning/But I’m all lit up like a Christmas tree.” An Xmas song for 12-steppers and other non-drinkers, although you suspect Brown is going to pour one as soon as the song ends.

At the darker end of the street is the Pogues’ fantabulous Fairytale of New York, wherein the late Kirsty MacColl and the possibly late Shane MacGowan (haven’t heard from him lately) stumble through the streets of New York, cursing and crying and whompin’ on one another until they hear “the boys from the NYPD choir … singing Galway Bay” (that’s what it says on Wikipedia, usually infallible in important matters such as these, although it always sounded to us as if they were singing “the boys from the NYPD choir were singing Gaahwa Humall,” or something). The cops’ serenade offers the hard-living codependents only momentary distraction, not an occasion for forgiveness and reconciliation, although when they sing “ … and the bells were ringing out on Christmas Day!!” … Well, everyone’s Irish at Christmas.

… Especially Bing Crosby, whose jaunty Christmas in Killarney always left us buzzed the countless times we heard it as a young person on our parents' copy of Bing’s White Christmas album (we could see the Pogues covering it, if they’re still alive, or maybe they already have). We also much liked the subsequent Hawaiian number, Mele Kalikimaka.

Bing, too, was a practicing multiculturalist, and we thoroughly understand Bob Dylan’s late-life fascination with the putter-toting crooner. Bing Crosby was far out.

Speaking of Dylan and far-outedness, we shan’t forget Mott the Hoople’s Death May Be Your Santa Claus. Despite the title, the song has nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas. The best we can remember, it’s all about being pissed off, at nothing in particular. Yet we include it here simply because it leads off what is arguably the best Dylan album (by Dylan or non-Dylans) between Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks. Our copy is too scratchy for further listening, so on the off-chance this is available on CD and we’re on your Christmas list, we’d be much obliged (and in return, we’ll give you something of value).

Closer to home, no Christmas would be complete without a listen or two to Robert Earl Keen’s Merry Christmas from the Family. It’s become a sort of Christmas tradition of ours to threaten to play this in our mother’s presence, since, after one listening years ago, she declared it “awful” (a judgment we believe may have something to do with an ongoing fear of falling into White Trash-dom). We, of course, greatly admire the song for its recognition of the power music has to bridge cultural divides: “Sister brought her new boyfriend/He was a Mexican/We didn’t know what to think of him/Till he sang Feliz Navidad.”

There are many other fine Christmas tunes---John Prine’s Christmas in Prison (“ … and the food was real good/ we had turkey/and pistols carved out of wood”), the O’Jays’ (or was it the Spinners’?) Christmas Just Ain’t Christmas (“ … without the one you love”) and the Run-DMC number about “Christmas time in Hollis, Queens/and mama’s cookin’ refried beans”---as well as many must-have collections of holiday songs (our favorite being Rhino’s Doo-Wop Christmas, although we seem to have lost track of ours, so if you have it please return it).

Most scholars agree that the greatest recorded selection of Christmas tunes once traded commercially under the title Phil Spector’s Christmas Album (originally A Christmas Gift to You from Phil Spector), which features various acts from the famed producer’s early ’60s stable---the Ronettes, Darlene Love, the Crystals, Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans. Several of the songs approach Charles Brown territory, especially the Darlene Love number Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) [not to be confused with Please Come Home for Christmas] and the Ronettes’ very sweet I Saw Mama Kissing Santa Claus.

Still, we’ve always found the highlight of the album to be the final cut, a spoken-word coda set to Silent Night in which the future accused murderer explains, in a soft, post-adolescent voice that can only be described as angelic, how the album was his attempt to showcase the Christmas music he loved and to do something new and different for the “recording industry, which is so much a part of my life.” (We Googled around for three or four minutes trying to find a transcript, to no avail---somebody’s falling down on the job out there.)

This, to us, is what Christmas is all about: a nice but potentially psychotic Jewish boy from Los Angeles overproducing frothy holiday songs by African-American singers meant to celebrate the season dedicated to Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Feliz Navidad, as they say at the jailhouse.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Update: Latest Breaking Kaffir/CAFR News

HOUSTON, TX. – We thought we might not have been fully awake Monday night when Fox News 26 reported that Councilman Jarvis Johnson had assumed a pose of high moral indignation after hearing Controller Annise Parker refer to the city’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report by the acronym CAFR, which according to Johnson and his media enabler, Fox’s Isiah Carey, made it sound as if Parker had uttered kaffir, a word that (among other meanings in other cultures) was/is employed as a slur against blacks in South Africa.

Although Carey’s report had the logic of many of our dozing-off dreams, it turns out we were wide awake. And after a sound night’s sleep and a day’s somber reflection, it occurs to us that Johnson, who “fired off a memo” to Parker asking her to henceforth refrain from using the acronym CAFR, has his work cut out for him in his campaign to rid the world of the word kaffir. (Out of idle curiosity, we’re moved to wonder whether the councilman has ever used the word “nigger” in good-natured banter with fellow African Americans.* Just asking.)

First stop: Kaffir, Texas (yep), population probably not much, which according to the authoritative Handbook of Texas Online is a “rural community and loading station on the Santa Fe Railroad between Tulia [uh oh] and Happy [yeah!] in north central Swisher County. Kaffir is dominated by the huge grain elevator and loading bin beside the tracks near U.S. Highway 87 (Interstate 27) and apparently was named for the strain of grain sorghum (usually spelled kafir) produced in the area.”

Johnson, preferably with Carey and Fox 26 camera in tow, should immediately drive to Kaffir and demand that the locals change the name of their loading bin stop to something more appropriate. (“Bumfuzzle” sounds good.)

Then there's the kaffir lime leaf, said to be a key ingredient in Thai food (damn, we love Thai food). There are many fine Thai dining establishments in Houston, and hopefully Johnson will organize a boycott of each and every one until their dishes can be certified "kaffir leaf-free.”

And what about the book for young adult readers, Kaffir Boy, which can be found in many Houston-area schools, actually being read by Houston-area students? Johnson needs to root this work out of our schools, and maybe he can grab Dick Gregory’s Nigger and Huckleberry Finn while he’s at it.

We could go on---our son once had a friend, an Israeli kid named Kafir (pronounced kuh-FEAR)---but we’ll stop now. After all, we previously were under the vague impression that kaffir was an archaic term, a Kiplingesque, Boer War-era anachronism, but according to this recent article in The Guardian it still has the power to sting and discomfort.

In South Africa.

It also apparently is still used by some Muslims as a slur against non-believing infidels.

So count us a proud kaffir!

* Or whether he's gotten deeply ironic and used kaffir, as in "You my kaffir!"

Monday, December 11, 2006

CAFR! (Annise Parker’s Michael Richards Moment)

We would have thought some wiseass was making this up if we hadn’t seen it with our own eyes: According to Fox 26 News, Houston Councilman Jarvis Johnson is demanding that City Controller Annise Parker cease and desist from using the acronym “CAFR” when referring to the city’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report.

Johnson tells Isiah Carey, the reporter who drummed this one up on what must have been an especially slow news day, that he was “taken aback” when he first heard this bureaucratese escape from Parker’s lips. And why is that? Because it sounds just like kaffir, a word not much heard on the streets of Houston but which has a wide variety of meanings in other cultures, including its use as a slur against blacks in South Africa and Jamaica.

“In short, it’s similar to the N-word,” Carey helpfully explained.

We can only assume he means “nitwit.”

“It’s just too close to a mean and hateful term, according to Johnson,” Carey further explained.

Johnson has “fired off” a memo to the controller asking that she refrain from using the acronym. In public and private.

According to Carey, a spokesperson for Parker said she was too busy to comment on the matter.

As we hope she’ll remain.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

All Grown Up With No Place to Go

This proposed deal whereby Houston would forego its legal right to annex The Woodlands in return for the paying of a sizeable tribute by that overplanned suburban community would be a landmark moment in the city’s history, akin to the closing of the frontier on a national scale in the 1890s.

Since World War II Houston’s story has been one of relentlessly outward crazy-quilt expansion from the city’s original core, beginning with the early close-in suburban developments of the 1940s and early ’50s through the mid-’90s bloodletting that ended in the forcible taking of Kingwood by Bob Lanier, with the suburban growth into the far nether reaches accompanied by the predictable sad decline of infrastructure and neighborhoods in the older, mostly black and Hispanic inner-city areas (a state of affairs that has slowed somewhat, if not exactly reversed---partly thanks to Lanier---although the decay has been spreading for the past 25 or so years into the older, apartment-filled areas that were once the far suburbs). Check out a circa-World War II map of Houston (courtesy Bayou City History) and see how compact and geographically coherent---how small, really---the city was in the days before what Jim Kunstler calls the Era of Easy Motoring dawned.

As Matt Stiles and Renee C. Lee reported in Saturday’s Houston Chronicle story on the very tenuous proposal

For decades, Houston annexed aggressively so it could grow without being ringed in by other incorporated areas.

But now, at 600 square miles, it may be about full-grown geographically.

Which means maybe Houston can get around to taking better care of what it’s got, with an eye toward halting the wholesale abandonment of the city by the middle-class (which we can easily see being finalized in, oh, about two or three quick decades).

We’ve got to hand it to Bill White. Although we’re not yet ready to date him---like this guy, or our neighbor who had to stake two White signs in her yard last year, even though he had no serious electoral competition---it’s clear that the mayor’s a master triangulator, of almost Clintonesque magnitude. We thought it interesting that he assigned the task of negotiating with The Woodlands to a Republican and our former representative on city council, Mark Ellis.

As White moves closer to making a run for statewide office, though, it’s the people in his own party he’s got to worry about, such as Houston state Rep. Garnet Coleman, who, according to the Chronicle’s Stiles and Lee is wary of the deal and apparently unfazed by the prospect of an annexation adding a sizable number of white Republican voters to the city:
"From a fiscal standpoint, you want to make sure we are getting the most tax dollars we can receive," said [Coleman].
Oh really?

Anyone in The Woodlands who read that remark would probably conclude that Bill White’s made them an offer they can’t refuse, and whatever the cost they’ll be getting off easy.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Cute ’n’ Cuddly Killer Gives Her Teddy a Hug

The Houston Chronicle’s “The butterfly and the knife” series on the killing of 15-year-old gangster acolyte Gabriel Granillo was a rare stab at long-form storytelling by the ordinarily monotonous daily newspaper, and we’ll stipulate into the record that we read all four parts (which was about two parts too many for the material)---in spite of the dopey title, in spite of the two strangely divergent authorial voices (one usually works better, we hear) and in spite of the obvious exertions to cast a rosy cinematic glow over the unrelievedly tawdry proceedings. (“And the grass---the grass was brilliant green, lush, before the summer heat turned it brown and dead.” Please, stop that.)

For the most part it was an interesting and at times illuminating read, even the made-up and imagined parts, but we had a real hard time getting past the newspaper’s choice of photos of the accused now-17-year-old killer, who was pictured with a solitary tear rolling down her cheek (she’s remorseful), engrossed in her school studies (she’s got an eye toward the future) and on the front page cuddling with a teddy bear next to her neatly obscured mother (she’s just a little girl, even though the mean ol' state has certified her to be tried as an adult). We’d imagine that the girl’s lawyer, who surely consented to and monitored the newspaper’s interviews with his client, couldn’t have been more pleased with the pre-trial imagery, although the stories themselves hardly made her out to be such a sympathetic character.

We would never mount our high horse to accuse such a morally resplendent institution as the Houston Chronicle of racism---no, not the daily newspaper that refuses to identify at-large crime suspects by race because, in the words of its reader representative, presenting such potentially relevant information amounts to “racial scorekeeping”---yet we can’t help but wonder whether the accused killer would have been accorded the soft-focus treatment if she weren’t a chubby-cheeked white girl. Yeah, imagine the paper running the same type of pictures if the accused were a burr-headed, tattooed cholo type ... like the victim.

You can’t.

Almost as bothersome was the pronouncement in the last installment by University of Houston sociologist Nestor Rodriguez (apparently Rice University’s Bob Stein was tied up that day, probably on another line with another Chronicle reporter), who seemed to suggest it all has something to do with welfare reform and stricter immigration law.

Please, stop that.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Something We Heard on the Radio Almost 30 Years Ago, Wrote Down in a Notebook While Driving and Forgot About Until We Came Across it Recently

“Yesterday is a canceled check, tomorrow is a promissory note, but today is ready cash!” – Dr. Dallas Klinger, “America’s Cowboy Evangelist,” radio station XEG, September [date illegible], 1978

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Real News from the Real World

A year or so ago New York Times columnist John Tierney zeroed in on journalists’ habit of instinctively calling for a government solution to every “problem” they run across. “I once sat in on a story conference the day after an armored car was robbed of millions of dollars bound for banks,” Tierney recalled. “The first idea that came up for a follow-up story was: Does this robbery show the need for stricter regulation of armored-car companies?”

Thus it was with the fatal shooting of the 16 year old earlier this week outside Westbury High School in southwest Houston, with much of the media coverage seemingly undergirded by the narrow and dubious suggestion that the school, or the school district, was somehow at fault for not doing enough to protect the slain student, even though the shooting was just off campus, at a time when the victim should have been in class (and while the Chronicle made much of various statements suggesting the victim was “trying to change the bad habits that earned [him] a rough reputation”---he was already two years older than the average high school freshman---not being in class when school starts doesn’t indicate a high level of dedication to that effort [not that it was deserving of a cold-blooded execution on a sidewalk]).

Indeed, the Chronicle’s School Zone blog, seizing on the school superintendent’s odd assertion that there’s “probably not a safer place in the community than the school itself …The school is very safe, this school as well as all the others" (this at a school where there’s been a rape and mini-riot on campus within the last year), asked readers whether they thought Westbury and other Houston campuses are safe.

The resulting outpouring---from residents of the Westbury area, graduates of the school, current and former teachers and students, and others with no horse directly in the race---is one of the most fascinating things we’ve read in a long time, anywhere. It’s front-line reportage from people with boots-on-the-ground knowledge of what’s happening in their neighborhood and school. Taken as a whole, the postings are angry, sad, reflective, frank, contradictory (often within the same posting), resigned and resolved.

Many correspondents dispensed with the question altogether and got down to addressing the larger cultural pathologies that seem to all flow downhill into the schools, with more than one citing the glorification of the insidious and unimaginative gangsta-thug life ethos (most hilariously promoted by white liberals in the media and entertainment business as some supposed expression of street authenticity, when it’s really no more than the reflexive barking of trained seals---and yeah, this stuff directly affects behavior, not in a good way).

Others follow the trail through bad parenting, the disappearance of personal responsibility, neighborhood deterioration, immigration, the city’s lack of zoning (apartments vs. single-family homes), etc. and so on. One writer even calls for the abolition of magnet schools, saying that the concept has ruined neighborhood schools by concentrating attentive parents and high-achieving students at a few schools (which is true enough, although doing away with magnets would pretty much kill off the remaining middle-class participation in the Houston school district---among white, black and brown parents, and we’d be near the front of the line at the exit).

Anyway, this is good stuff---the kind of things that people can’t or won’t say in casual conversations with friends or neighbors, or to television and newspaper reporters. (By the way, the Chronicle should hire this “Marco” as a columnist, as a sort of Counter-Cultural Coach, although he may be overqualified.)

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Another Story from Our Mother, In Which “Mark Twain” Gets the “Kramer” Treatment

Our mother reports that several of her friends took in Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight recently when it played at the municipal auditorium in her town (we had sort of forgotten that Holbrook is still extant and plying the provinces with his wheezy presentation of the author’s works).

At some point Holbrook recited from Huckleberry Finn and, as he has done for decades, employed the word "nigger." His and Twain’s use of the n-word has been semi-controversial dating to Holbrook’s first appearance as Twain on PBS back in the 1960s, and since then the book has occasionally come under attack by parents who believe its rendering of 19th century vernacular to be too much reality for the pre-adult minds of the 20th and 21st.

But apparently the news hasn’t hit the Hub City. Our mother’s friends said that Holbrook’s first use of “nigger” set off some audible grumbling in the audience, followed by a noticeable exodus of patrons who decided not to stick around for their full 30 or 40 dollars worth of Twain impersonation. Because it was dark, they were unable to tell whether the offended were persons of color or persons of non-color, or a mixture thereof.

Isn't it well past time for Hal Holbrook, who surely must be approaching the age at which Twain himself departed this vale of tears, to refrain from hectoring audiences with the irrelevant words of this long-dead white male, or at least extract the barbarisms from his works to make them palatable for today’s sensitized theater-goers? Otherwise, he may find himself being hit up by Gloria Allred for a just and equitable settlement to compensate for their injuries.

Our mother, who when we were very young read us the works of Mark Twain---in dialect---had no comment.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Sense and Memory: A Story from Our Mother

In Austin over Thanksgiving, driving up Guadalupe Street past Austin State Hospital with our nearly 80-year-old mother, who recalled taking the bus to the facility three times a week to do “observations” for an undergraduate psychology class.

One day she saw a woman treated with electroshock.

“It was horrible,” she said, matter-of-factly. “I was so young …”

She had entered the university at 15 and graduated, summa cum laude, at 18---circumstances she attributes, not with any false modesty, to the school’s desperate need for students during World War II.

“I remember they were brewing coffee and chicory that day,” she said.

Who was?

“I don’t know. I just remember the smell.”

Well, was the staff brewing the coffee to drink? Or were they serving it to the patients before they gave them the electroshock?

“I told you I don’t know---I was just observing.”


Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Day We Met the Great Fred Willard, Scholar of Vanished Luminescence

This New York Times profile of Christopher Guest---which smartly compares his work to that of another of our favorite moviemakers, Preston Sturges---brought to mind the time we ran into the funniest of Guest’s ensemble players, the great Fred Willard.

It was the Super Bowl weekend of 2004 (or one of those years), and we and our wife, daughter and a sister in-law were headed downtown to take in the Rockets and the Knicks at the spanking new Toyota Center. We left the car at friends’ in the Museum District and walked over to the spanking new Metro station to catch the spanking new light rail into downtown. We had been at the platform for a couple of minutes when we looked to our right and saw a big, shambling guy in a ballcap come walking up alone.

“Hey! It’s Fred Willard!” we squealed. “Who’s Fred Willard?” asked our daughter.

“Fred Willard, man, we loved you in Best in Show!” we said as he ambled closer. (We were so excited that we actually said, “We loved you in Dog Show, Fred Willard!” His turn as the announcer in Best in Show is one of the funniest bits ever committed to film, and, as with all of Guest’s movies, supposedly was ad-libbed.)

“Thanks,” said a humble Fred before asking us for directions into downtown and then seeking our assistance in purchasing a train ticket (which didn't look that difficult to figure out, but we're always glad to assist a celebrity, especially one we like). It was then we noticed that Fred was walking funny, sort of listing to one side, and his hands shook noticeably when we gave him his ticket (it was on us), which we hoped was due to a massive Super Bowl party-hangover and not some encroaching neurological disorder. The comedian quickly shied off to be alone at the other end of the platform, so we immediately instructed our daughter to go ask for his autograph.

“Why?” she asked (nowadays, having been enrolled in middle school for two years, she 'd just tell us to get it our own sorry self).

“Yeah, you’ll always remember the day you got the great Fred Willard’s autograph,” we told her after she returned with the prize. “Who is he?” she asked again.

The train was crowded into downtown and Fred squeezed into a seat by his lonesome. A couple of middle-aged women passengers recognized him and snapped off a series of digital close-ups, but Fred pretended not to notice. Then, for some reason, he got up, gave us a little wave and exited the train at the very next stop, far from downtown. He fled on foot, headed south, away from all the Super Bowl spuzz. Last we saw of him.

We thought he might be disoriented, but later we learned from this Talk of the Town item in the New Yorker that Willard is a scholar of vanished luminescence, so he most likely had spotted some on South Main (where it's not totally vanished) and wanted a closer look.

That day our daughter was more impressed by seeing Paris Hilton and her butt cleavage doing something with an MTV microphone downtown. Now she knows who Fred Willard is and, like us, looks forward to seeing Guest’s For Your Consideration.

Come to think of it, Shelley Sekula-Gibbs is nothing but a character sprung to life from a Guest movie (we’re working on the script on another screen, right now).

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

“LTC” Means “Soy Un Moron,” Or “It’s Time to Move to Grimes County”

Some of Our Town’s artistically inclined youth recently took advantage of the glorious weather to try their hands at decorating this fence near the entrance to our neighborhood. The preliterate scrawl is the brand of the shit-for-brains killers who skulk under the handle Los Tercera Crips, but it’s most likely the handiwork of some younger, less lethal dimwits who aspire to LTCrip-dom.

We had to stand back and admire their guile. The fence sits only 20 or so feet from the house where the owner presumably lays his head and fronts a major thoroughfare which is rarely empty of traffic, even at 3 a.m. It surely took more than a minute or two to get everything looking just so (check out the shadowing). On a school night, too!

The fence was un-defaced within 24 hours, painted over with that slate-gray graffiti-covering paint the city provides---a fresh canvas for another early-morning assault.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

More Tunnel at the End of the Tunnel?

The conventional insta-wisdom holds that a Pelosi-led House clears the way for passage of the Bush-McCain-Kennedy immigration package, including some form of amnesty for illegals. No less a charter of the prevailing tides than amnesty advocate Sheila Jackson Lee happily professed to see “a light at the end of the tunnel” (that’s the tunnel that runs under the border, which Jackson Lee wants to pave and air-condition).

That was the initial fear of Slate’s Mickey Kaus, who pre-election suggested, maybe only half in jest, that Bush might secretly welcome a Democratic majority in the House to pass what would probably be his last signature piece of legislation. But post-election Kaus says the comprehensive package may not be quite the cinch it seems, in light of the positions taken by many winning Democrats (Webb in Virginia, Brown in Ohio). He quotes an “experienced immigration hand”:
What's REALLY important is that of the 27 or 28 seats where a Democrat replaced a Republican, in at least 20, the Democrat ran to the immigration enforcement side of the Republican …
Presumably among that number is Nick Lampson of Texas' 22nd Congressional District, whose position on illegal immigration was essentially the same as that of Chet Edwards, the only Texas Democrat with the proven ability to win in a Republican-leaning district. (Lampson favors the fence and is against amnesty, on the reasoned grounds that it would be unfair to immigrants who’ve made the effort to enter the country legally, and he called for a “crackdown” on illegal-hiring employers, something you don’t hear at much volume from Republican hardlegs on the issue, many of whom prefer to bang on the people being paid 6 bucks an hour.)

We thought Lampson ran a smart campaign, and his spread over the spooky two-faced dermatologist from Clear Lake was a bit wider than we would have figured. Yeah, it’s a Republican district, and Lampson won only because the Republicans couldn’t get anybody on the ballot whose name wasn’t DeLay, but the whole write-in deal didn’t seem to be an insurmountable problem: after all, many of these Republicans wear ties on the job and work with computers and probably could have figured out how to dial in S-H-E-L-L-E-Y etc. without much sweat, if they were so moved, but Lampson deftly petarded Sekula-Gibbs on her own hoist, time and again, on taxes and immigration and abortion, exposing the hypocrisy and opportunism on which her campaign was flimsily built and most likely tamping down the enthusiasm for her in certain quarters (we’re usually not up for giving advice, unless somebody wants to pay us for it, and nobody does, but we’d suggest that Republicans find a better candidate next time).

Lampson’s position on immigration did not escape the notice of the Upper West Side editorialists of the Houston Chronicle, who’ve recently broken new ground in the opinionating racket by inveighing against the racial gimmickry of the “reality” TV show Survivor and calling for a quick cessation to the ache in Yao Ming’s big toe. Several days before the election, the newspaper went out of its way to observe that Lampson, who had the Chronicle endorsement, was among Democratic candidates across the nation who weren’t hewing to their party’s presumed orthodoxy on some issues, like illegal immigration. In a truly bizarre touch near the bottom of the editorial the paper trundled out disgraced state Sen. Mario Gallegos to enforce the party line (and speak for the Chronicle, we guess) by warning that Lampson “weigh this out better.” The editorial concluded:
In the past, Democrats who tried to run as GOP lite against the real thing have had little success. The results Nov. 7 will determine the longevity of the latest political trend.
Time did tell, didn’t it?

(Along those lines, we’d suggest---more free advice here---that in the future Lampson ask that Jackson Lee and her hairpiece refrain from wading on-stage for a victory salute until after the cameras have gone, although we know that’d be like trying to drain the lake with a plastic straw.)

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

You Can’t Break a Dog From Suckin’ Eggs

“It was a great day for conservative voters in Senate District 7.” - Radio talker Dan Patrick, author of The Second Most Important Book You Will Ever Read, suggesting that the election of Dan Patrick to the Texas Senate was one bright beacon in a national sea of misery for Republicans

“Of course, Iraq was a major factor …” – Dan Patrick, after enumerating a list of other reasons for the Republican thumping (which did not include the sewer stench emanating from the 109th Congress)

"I had to go down to Houston, in Sugar Land, and act as Secretary of State: 'Take your pencil into the box and then write it in.' I'm not sure Iraq had much to do with the outcome of that election." – the president, explaining, almost correctly, the reasons for the GOP’s loss of Texas’ 22nd Congressional District

She added that she still believes she can accomplish some improvements such as lowering taxes during that time.The Houston Chronicle, paraphrasing U.S. Rep-elect Shelley Sekula[-]Gibbs on her plans for her two-month gig as congresswoman from the 22nd District Congressional District, which apparently do not include pursuit of a nationwide ban on smoking in bars

"That's kind of up to the good Lord. He may decide he wants me doing something different and I'm out of here tomorrow. Who knows?" – Rick Perry, in the throes of elation over his 39 percent re-election victory, refusing to commit to serving out his full term as governor, in case he gets a better offer

But assuming he is able to keep a lid on crime, White will present something Democrats haven't had in a long while — a formidable candidate for governor with a story to tell and the money to tell it … The story will be of competence, social progressiveness and fiscal conservatism. He will be a Democrat who passed his own revenue cap and, if very modestly, cut the city's tax rate. He will be a mayor who ended pay-for-play at city hall. Long live his name, long live his glory and long may his story be told.*Chronicle columnist Rick Casey, using the occasion of Rick Perry’s 39 percent re-election to write some early ad copy for Bill White’s 2010 campaign

"I highly doubt he would stay out of politics. Once the bug bites ... " – Alison Bell, addressing the future of her husband, Chris Bell, who has now lost races for political offices at three levels of government

*We added that last part, because it gives the piece more movement, and we felt like singing.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Last-Minute Endorsements for the Nov. 7 Election, Subject, As Always, to Change

During a hasty convening of the editorial board at the South Hill Barber Shop late Saturday afternoon, the following candidates were awarded the coveted “Slampo’s Place Unequivocal Endorsement,” which may possibly be good for one vote, depending on how we feel Tuesday morning. But before we open the envelopes, permit us to quote at length from this recent endorsement editorial in the Bryan-College Station Eagle, which starts off like this on the gubernatorial election:
This is a race that makes a lot of Texans wish for a fifth, better candidate … In his six years in office, Rick Perry has disappointed us time and again. When leadership is called for, Perry is too often out of the office. That lack of leadership on public school finance allowed the Legislature to postpone a solution for several years, until a court order forced reluctant lawmakers to act. Even then, the solution is less than perfect …
And comes to a screeching halt five paragraphs later like this:
While the choices are not great, Gov. Perry seems the best of the lot.
Yes, ah … in that spirit of discombobulation, the envelopes, please:

Jerry Patterson, Texas Land Commissioner: He’s always struck us as a decent, no-BS guy who by most accounts quietly runs a lean, efficient shop at the General Land Office (and seems to have been pretty good on enforcing the Open Beaches Act). He does it so quietly, in fact, that we had forgotten he was seeking re-election until we got a direct mailing from Patterson last week (we’re sure his Democratic opponent is a fine person who would make a good land commissioner, as would his Libertarian opponent, if he’s got one---we’re just going with our Bush-ian gut reflex here).

The piece parodies (we think) Patterson’s image as a “maverick,” a sort of Aggie John McCain, and includes a noticeable photo of Jerry talking aim, Dirty Harry-style, replete with a thumbprint that indicates the land commissioner ain’t just “posin’ ” (as a state senator, Patterson famously authored the state’s concealed handgun law, which occasioned all sorts of hand-wringing and dire predictions from opponents---none of which came to pass, as you’ll recall).

Anyway, what caught our attention was Patterson’s words, his credo, so to speak, as spelled out inside the mailing. Permit us to quote at length---the first time in the long and storied history of Slampo’s Place (voted “Bestest Blog in the 77079 Zip Code” two years running!) that we’ve stooped to quoting approvingly from a piece of political junk mail (‘cause it’s actually that worthy):
I strongly believe that Texas need less political grandstanding and more reasoned debate based on specificity and fact-based opinion. Have no doubt, I am a Republican … a true conservative who believes strongly in individual liberty, constitutional rights and trusting everyday Texans like you and me with decisions that affect their lives. I never put party before logic or ideology before individuals …. [Emphasis added]
Imagine that: A politician who brags about basing his opinions on “logic” and facts.”

If he even comes to close to living up to those words, there's obviously no future in Texas politics for somebody like Jerry Patterson.

That’s it for the endorsements, except for Jim Webb in the Virginia Senate race, which isn’t worth even one vote.

One more thing: When we go to the polls Tuesday and delicately close our nostrils to cast our meager lot with a wide variety of unworthies, we will keep in mind this exchange we witnessed t’other night at the butt-end of that local PBS politics show, the one with Gary Polland, the former county Republican chairman, and David Jones, the Democratic lawyer-gadabout, who were beating their gums, vigorously as always, over the election.

Polland, who sometimes strikes us as a reasoned voice of moderation (must be the mid-life change thing), observed that with Perry likely limping back into office with 40-something percent or so of the vote, the Legislature was going to have to step up and get busy addressing the move to lower the cap on property-tax appraisals, or else we’ll all be talking about Gov. Dan Patrick in a few years.

That brought an avuncular demurral from a guest panelist, Chronicle somnambulist Rick Casey (nah, he’s actually roused himself recently to put some pretty good pops on the non-fact-based bloviations of local congressmen Ted Poe and Kid Culberson [“Not Endorsed by Slampo’s Place”]), who declared it a safe bet that Dan Patrick will never be governor of Texas.

Yeah, we would have thought the same way 25 years ago if you’d have told us the sports anchorman who painted his noggin blue in the heyday of the Bum-era Oilers would one day be elected to the state Senate.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Shelley Sekula[-]Gibbs Explains It All For You

... In this Channel 11 report from last week, wherein the Republican write-in candidate for the 22nd Congressional District seat outlines her "position" on Iraq:
“If you put it in perspective we’ve lost 2,800 brave men and women in Iraq but we lose over 9,000 Americans at the hands of illegal immigrants every year, according to the general accounting office.”
So that means … out of the 15,000 to 16,000 or so murders in the United States annually, 9,000 are committed by illegal aliens? Or is that the total number of Americans “lost” in killings, car wrecks, industrial accidents, whatever, caused by illegal aliens? Or … what? We can’t seem to find this GAO citation, but we’ll keep looking.

Whatever she meant, we can't thank the doctor enough for putting this whole Iraq thing in perspective. We feel much better.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Nothing Like a Relationship That’s “Working”

We meant to bring this to your attention earlier but got caught up in folding laundry: Last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times had an interesting story exploring how Neil Bush’s Ignite! Learning is “benefiting,” as the paper put it, from his brother’s No Child Left Behind Act through school districts’ purchases of the company's dubious COW doohickeys. Buried down in the piece were some fragrant details about the presidential brother’s ... how shall we say ... efforts at marketing the product to the Houston Independent School District:

In Houston, where Neil Bush and his parents live, the district has used various funding sources to acquire $400,000 in Ignite products. An additional $240,000 in purchases has been authorized in the last six months.

Correspondence obtained by The Times shows that Neil Bush met with top Houston officials, sent e-mails and left voice mail messages urging bigger and faster allocations. An e-mail from a school procurement official to colleagues said Bush had made it clear that he had a "good working relationship" with a school board member. [Emphasis added]

Of this the Times said no more, but we figured some eagle-eyed member of the local 4th Estate would hop to and fill in the blanks for us by revealing the name of the mystery trustee (and maybe somebody has and we missed it).

After all, there are only nine members of the HISD board.

Gosh, we hope it’s not ours.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

4 or 5 Reasons We Might “Come Home” to Kinky

Oh, we’ll probably vote for the goofy old lady, at least that’s how we’re leaning as of 9 o’clock this evening, but of late we’ve been inclined to look more favorably on R. Friedman, mostly because:

1. Of his refusal to engage in the bullshit ritual of “apology” and submission as demanded by the state NAACP. Sam Houston would’ve done no less.

2. The prospect that his election would keep Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News in a state of profound agitation.

3. The Houston Chronicle told us not to.

4. The Democratic nominee---the only candidate we’ve ever seen who seems to recede in his own TV commercials---asked him to quit the race (suppose there’s no harm in asking).

5. After paying closer-than-usual attention (reduced to watching Scarborough Country nightly) for the past 2-3 weeks to the coast-to-coast, wall-to-wall, around-the-clock dumbshow that is electoral politics (was it ever thus?), we’ve been reminded of just how puke-sick the whole business leaves us … and so:

6. "Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats." -- H.L. Mencken*

* Courtesy DJW of St. Louis, Mo.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Houston City Council Campaign Finance Disclosure Trivia Quiz, Part 4 (Special “Cleared by the Klan” Edition)

We recently gave Google News Archive Search a spin by tapping in “Oscar Holcombe,” figuring his long run as mayor of Houston (intermittently, from the 1920s through the 1950s) would give us a good idea of the search engine’s capabilities. As it turned out, most of the hits were to, which unfortunately does not meet our baseline requirement for a search engine (it’s not free) and does not include reproduced pages from the three Houston dailies (although it appears that Holcombe for some reason was frequently chronicled in the Port Arthur News).

Our search did, however, turn up an interesting article on Holcombe from the Dec. 27, 1948 Time magazine. Written with that jaunty mid-century Luce-ian élan, the profile appeared on the occasion of Holcombe’s election to a ninth term as mayor (he’d be elected twice more) and examines his durability as a political phenom in “raw and rollicking” Houston.

We had always figured Holcombe for the rawboned reactionary type, but come to find out it was the “Old Gray Fox” who set the tone for the inclusiveness and diversity and whatnot that, as we’re often reminded (by people who mostly consort with people like themselves), is one of the city’s great strengths. Check it out:
In 1922, after he refused to fire three Catholics from his administration, he was opposed by the 10,000 members of Sam Houston Klan No. 1. The Klan started a campaign of vilification, denouncing him as a chronic drinker and gambler. A Baptist, Holcombe demanded that the Baptist Ministers' Association try him on the charges at a public hearing. Although nine of the 13 ministers on the "jury" were Klansmen, they cleared him after a one-day "trial" held at the Rice Hotel a week before election. He won the election. Three campaigns later, however, he was defeated. One reason: he swung an umbrella at the publisher of a Houston newspaper who had threateningly brandished a letter-opener during a heated argument. "You just can't explain that sort of thing to the people," said Holcombe.
Hell, those were the days---when a newspaper publisher could pull a letter-opener on a mayor with impunity. So in honor of the umbrella-swinging longest-serving mayor in the city's history, and all the riches he reaped flipping land in the city he long governed, let’s take one final Houston City Council Campaign Finance Disclosure Trivia Quiz:

This councilmember and her $2,500-a-month political consultant opened a legal defense fund PAC earlier this year that has reported receiving contributions from former Portland Trailblazers great Clyde Drexler ($1,000), the person for whom the Shirley A. DeLibero Rail Operations Center was named ($200), former Temple grocery-supply magnate Drayton McLane ($1,000), some person with an apparently limitless amount of disposable income named Bob Perry ($5,000), traffic watchamacallhim David Saperstein ($1,000) and erstwhile mayoral hopeful Ned Holmes ($2,500).

A. Carol Alvarado

B. Carol Alvarado

C. Carol Alvarado

D. Carol Alvarado

Answer to last quiz: B.) Pam Holm

Monday, October 16, 2006

Houston City Council Campaign Finance Disclosure Trivia Quiz, Part 3 (Shelley Sans Hyphen Edition)

Like most Houstonians, we spent this rainy weekend inside, with the shades drawn, checking out the Web site for the newly de-hyphenated and write-in-ready Shelley Sekula Gibbs, Republican candidate for the 22nd Congressional District (in which we once resided but no longer do [it left us, we didn’t leave it]).

We noticed something distinctive about this Web site. We looked high and low, but nowhere on it---including the “issues” link and the “talking points” link---could we find the word Iraq. The place where more than 50 Americans have died already this month.

No doubt the busy dermatologist-cum-councilwoman-cum-congressional candidate has some position on the war but just hasn’t had the time to instruct one of her factotums to post it on the site.

She is, however, pretty clear about her stand on gay marriage.

At least Nick Lampson acknowledges (kinda) there’s a war going on.

It makes us sorry we’re no longer a denizen of the 22nd Congressional District, so that we could have the satisfaction of not writing in her unhyphenated name on the electronic ballot.

To assuage our melancholy, we’ll play another round of the Houston City Council Campaign Finance Disclosure Trivia Quiz:
In the spring this councilmember generously opened his or her campaign/officeholder account to contribute to the re-election campaigns of U.S. Rep. John Culberson ($250), state Rep. Martha Wong ($250) and Gov. Rick Perry ($500), but was still flush enough to shell out $22.11 for a “gift for constituent” purchased at Helmsley’s Times Square in NYC ( how come our council member never buys us a “gift”?) and $14.06 for “reading matter” at Newark International Airport (not to mention picking up the tab for a fair number of “meetings” and “staff appreciation luncheons” at La Griglia and Arista and the like [it’s not our money---we don’t care]).

A. Ada Edwards

B. Pam Holm

C. Sue Lovell

D. Shelley Sekula-Gibbs
Answer to last quiz: C.) Carol Alvarado (too easy)

Friday, October 13, 2006

Houston City Council Campaign Finance Disclosure Trivia Quiz, Part 2 (Left Big Toe Edition)

We noticed that the gravity of Yao Ming’s achin’ big toe was sufficient to bring forth a declaration of concern from the weeping philosophers at the Houston Chronicle, who made a bold Rodney King-like call for the Rockets and the sneaker manufacturer Reebok to please, please come together to alleviate the big Chinaman’s misery.

In fact, as others have pointed out, the newspaper appears to be devoting an unusual amount of attention to toes and feet this week. Perhaps some upper-level editor there has deemed the subject part of Houston’s “master narrative.”

We, too, had considered authoring a hard-hitting editorial calling for an end to Yao’s pain, except we long ago laid out our position on the Rockets center: He’s a big puss.

That toe needs to get fixed, though, so Yao can get the hell out of the way when the Rockets put T-Mac and Bonzi on the floor together.

In the meantime, let’s take another Houston City Council Campaign Finance Disclosure Trivia Quiz. Just match the right councilmember with the item taken verbatim from the campaign and officeholder disclosure reports that were due on Jan. 1 and July 15 of this year:
Once the object of controversy for having claimed to have a degree from the University of Houston when he or she had not fulfilled all requirements for graduation, this councilmember tapped his or her officeholder account for $45 on Feb. 10 to pay for membership in the UH alumni organization (and who says the personal’s not political?).

A.) Ronald Green

B.) Pam Holm

C.) Carol Alvarado

D.) Addie Wiseman

Answer to last quiz: B.) Jarvis Johnson

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Houston City Council Campaign Finance Disclosure Trivia Quiz, Part I

Note: This blogger is offering his own perspective on a subject that interests him. The posts and opinions are his own and are not edited by anyone. He is solely responsible for the content of this blog.

We were all set to file our richly detailed 8,000-word exegesis of the Texas governor’s race, but due to our lack of interest in that ragged affair and in recognition of the news that the city of Houston may take a tentative half-step toward dragging its disclosure system into the 21st century, we will for a limited time devote this space to our special “Houston City Council Campaign Finance/Officeholder Account Trivia Quiz.” Or whatever we called it up above.

All you have to do is match the right councilmember with the item taken verbatim from disclosure reports that were supposed to be filed with the city secretary on Jan. 1 and July 15 of this year. Please begin:

1. On his or her campaign finance report due July 15 but filed on Sept. 21, this councilmember reported receiving a $500 contribution from Maxxam Inc. on April 4. Direct contributions to candidates from corporations are prohibited under the Texas Election Code.

A.) Toni Lawrence

B.) Jarvis Johnson

C.) Michael Berry

D.) Shelley Sekula-Gibbs

Each day’s answer will be provided in the following edition of Slampo’s Place, if there is one.

Remember: Keep your eyes on your own paper!

Sunday, October 08, 2006

¡Indio Apache Es Tu Papá!

There’s no clearer window into Houston’s soul, or maybe just the soft brown underbelly of its 3 a.m. fever dream, than Channel 61, the independent Spanish-language station that's carried on the Channel 3 spot on the cable system.

As the true cognoscenti know, Channel 61 is the local home to the Jose Luis Sin Censura show, a sort of lower-rent Jerry Springer (if such is possible), except the overweight and tattooed products of consanguineous marriages who strut and preen their fretful half-hour on cheeky Jose Luis’s stage sometimes appear to be actually fighting, or at least look to be a little closer to actually throwing down (lots of sweat, shirts pulled up over the head, a hint of blood on the lip) than the usual flailing-away-at-the-air and tiresome trash talk that passes for “violence” on the Springer show (we generally understand only a fraction of what they’re saying on Jose Luis, which may explain why we do not find the trash talk tiresome).

Another 61 warhorse is Secretos de Houston, in which a leather-clad team of sexy professional busybodies led by the suave J.C. Uribe uses the latest in electronic surveillance equipment to ensnare philandering Hispanic husbands and wives in their love-nest hideaways. After the offending esposa or esposo is cornered---usually by methods that in “real life” would constitute unauthorized entry---Uribe’s team ushers in the cuckolded spouse to confront his or her formerly significant other, who invariably is poised to slap the ham with someone much younger and more attractive. These confrontations always culminate in a round of Springeresque swearing and swinging, although Uribe wisely has some muscle on hand to see that nobody gets killed. (The acting’s not too bad on Secretos---a notch or two below your average TUTS production---and no knowledge of Spanish, or any other spoken language, is required to follow the “plots.”)

It appears that Secretos is a syndicated show that splices in some footage and local color for the markets where it airs. That’s what gives the show a kind of updated Naked City feel: When Uribe’s assistants tail their target past some graffiti-pocked apartment complex offering $99 move-in specials, we go, “Hey, we drive past there sometimes!” Or when a scheming husband is caught on-camera going into the Best Buy near the Galleria to procure some equipment with which to film homemade “pornos” of two senoritas mas fina (and it’s a real shame his naggin’ wife had to bust in on ’em before production got under way), we exclaim, “Hey, we shop there sometimes!”

But it’s the early morning programas pagado that really get us to thinking we should move to the south of France, or the south of Utah, as soon as we can get off the clock. Our longtime favorite---and we know there are others out there who share our enthusiasm---is the faith healer and snake handler who goes by the name of Indio Apache. (Not to be confused with his earlier-morning rival, Indian Kamacum del Amazonas, a less animated presence who bears a passing resemblance to Hidalgo “High-Born” Hidalgo, a Channel 61 viewer and the onetime reader representative and executive editor at Slampo’s Place who recently left our employ because, as he put it, “I’d rather go jump on the back of a truck at 5 a.m. everyday than keep slaving for what you pay me.”)

Indio’s the guy in the headdress and war paint who’s usually clutching a copperhead (or maybe it’s just a coral snake) while calling down the blessings of Our Lady de Guadalupe, somebody named “Padre Santos” and various other deities and sub-deities with whom we’re unfamiliar.

Money problems, bad luck, sickness, an unresponsive lover---Indio Apache says he can fix what ails you (although for some reason he’s not on our HMO’s list of preferred providers).

We’ve only seen Indio Apache a few times, usually when someone in our household has been watching a DVD the previous evening and left the TV tuned to Channel 3, so we really can’t vouch for his effectiveness, although we see no reason why he would not qualify for sponsorship by the Houston Chronicle.

Friday, October 06, 2006

A Potentially Relevant Fact You Didn’t Read in the Houston Chronicle

Friday’s Houston Chronicle carried a big, above-the-fold front-page story on Bible thumper Luis Palau, whose CityFest Houston (a combination “concert meets X Games meets Christian revival,” as the paper describes it) is being staged this weekend in Eleanor Tinsley Park.

The Chronicle story notes that among the sponsors of the Palau to-do are “the Houston Astros, H-E-B and more than 550 local churches.” Elsewhere in the story the paper provides approving verbiage from another sponsor, David Weekley of David Weekley Homes, and quotes one of Palau’s assistants explaining that 19 percent of the festival’s costs are being underwritten by corporate sponsors (a beneficence that apparently permits Palau to admit all comers free of charge).

What the paper didn’t mention---and we’re sure this was an oversight---is that Palau’s corporate sponsors include … the Houston Chronicle.

This was brought to our attention earlier this week by sharp-eyed correspondent Il Pinguino, who, while reading the daily newspaper through a powerful magnifying glass, noticed the Chronicle logo tucked amid the other corporate logos at the bottom of the ads the paper has been running for the City Fest. We’ll let Il take it from here:

Other predictable sponsors (religious organizations and pious businessmen who are known Christers) and some other not-so- predictable ones, like the secular or at least unaffiliated (as the George Clooney character called himself in O Brother, Where Art Thou) Texas Children's Hospital.

Anyway, the Chronicle sponsorship (also noted on Bro. Luis' website) seemed singularly weird.

I mean, this "festival" (NOT "crusade," as Billy G. used to call such events) looks to be wholesome family fun and all that, but Palau makes no ecumenical noises beyond the big tent of traditional-doctrine Christianity. (Believe in JC's divinity or fry, in so many words--- again, check his website.)

Which leads me to wonder: Why in the world is a big city newspaper (with lots of Jews and Buddhists and Hindus and Unitarians and Muslims and non-theists [among its readers]) sponsoring a literal come-to-Jesus event? I can see the Jackson Clarion-Ledger doing it in 1954, but the Houston Chronicle in 2006?

Further cause for wonder is the nature of the Chronicle’s sponsorship of the event: Does it entail some contribution of monetary value, such as the donation of prime advertising space to Palau (our guess)? Or what, exactly? Obviously the town’s leading daily newspaper didn’t see fit to address this question in its highly favorable report on the X Games evangelist.

Another question: Would it be all right with Palau (and by extension, the Chronicle and his other corporate sponsors) if we excuse our self to go beat the holy pee out of our manservant? We believe this is biblically sanctioned in Exodus, or Leviticus or perhaps Deuteronomy, one of ’em (our Bible learnin’ went in one lobe and out the other).

Monday, October 02, 2006

Whither the Rum Runners?

Five or six months ago we were killing the end of a nearly-dead-anyway Saturday afternoon at an estate sale a few miles from our house. We occasionally drop in at these public dispossessions in the dim hope that we can find something to add to the sizable collection of worthless crap that we’ll one day bequeath to our children, so they’ll be burdened with divesting it at a sale of our very own probated “estate” (or, more likely, setting it all on the curb for heavy trash pick-up), although we know the days are long past when we can walk into a falling-down house on the north side of our hometown and discover an ancient bathtub full of 78 RPM records from the pre-dawn hours of rock ‘n’ roll for a dime apiece, as we did about 35 years ago, or purchase a box of near-mint 1950s Police Gazettes for $5 from two elderly gay guys in Montrose, as we did not 20 years ago.

Everyone knows the price of everything in this day of eBay and Antiques Roadshow, and everything’s been Sold American, as the would-be governor has sung, so this time-killing incursion was shaping up as just another disappointing walk through a dead person’s house, one that was certain to leave us especially glum based on the realization that none of the departed’s friends or relations bothered to retrieve his or her family photo albums, which were on sale along with the apparently uncracked Modern Library copy of Ulysses and the worn 1970s furniture that was probably headed curbside (surprisingly, nobody was buying the photos, although they pictured an especially good-looking bunch). We were headed out the door when we spotted something encased in a Ziploc bag that caught our interest---the March 20, 1964 copy of The Houston Press, the very last edition of that daily newspaper. The conductors of the sale were asking $5 but settled without haggling for the 50 cents we offered (that being the going price of a newspaper on the street).

We felt a moral imperative to buy the thing---after all, somebody had bothered to save it, either for sentimental reasons or under the delusion it might be “worth something someday” (that day not having arrived), and now it was lying there on a bookshelf, alone and unwanted. We’re sensitive that way.

We brought the yellowed newspaper home and placed it atop the stack of important papers on our desk, where it gradually settled toward the bottom as more important papers and bill stubs were added. This weekend we finally got around to paring the stack and thought we’d give our purchase a run-through to see if we got our four bits’ worth.

This was The Houston Press published by the Scripps Howard chain, which we’d always heard offered a scrappier, livelier and more sensationalistic alternative to the somnambulant Chronicle and Post of the day. The one that employed Marvin Zindler and Garvin Berry and Maxine Messinger and many others who were in the throes of their journalistic dotage years later when we mistakenly got off the bus in Baghdad on the Bayou (thinking we were in Beaumont).

We weren’t familiar with the particulars of the Press’s demise, but come to find out it went out just on its rear end just like the Post did some 30-odd years later, at least according to the March 20, 1964 The Houston Press. “Houston Press is Sold, 52-Year History Ended by Chronicle Purchase” reads the six-column headline over the play story, which reported: “The Press today announced sale of its plant and certain other assets to The Houston Chronicle after successive years of operating at a loss.” That was it as far as the whys and wherefores of the transaction. The rest of the story dealt with the history of the paper, including the claim that the Press played a major role in implementation of a city manager form of government in Houston (later abandoned “in favor of the present arrangement”) and had “brought to light many instances of misconduct in public affairs.”

“Through the years,” the story concluded, “the Press developed the reputation and the tradition of being a ‘fighting newspaper’ on behalf of the people. That is the tradition that today passes into other hands.”


Other than another small front-page story thanking readers for 52 wonderful years, there was no indication in the paper that the ride was over, the song had ended, that time had stopped in that most time-bound of institutions, the daily newspaper. (As the Stones were to ask just a few years later in their grossly underappreciated Between the Buttons LP, “Who wants yesterday’s papers? Who wants yesterday’s girl?” Answer: “Nobody in the world.”)

Right under news of the paper’s demise is a large picture of three bad customers who appear to be conversing with “Police Chief Buddy McGill” (a picture that today would be exposed by some sharp-eyed blogger as “obviously posed”). The surly trio were subordinate players in an ongoing drama in which they were accused of stealing $160,000 from Corrigan’s Jewelers on Post Oak and turning the “loot” over to a former Pasadena mayor named Sam Hoover (we recall hearing of this affair many years later and believe there was lots of other stuff involved, stuff we’ve mercifully forgotten). Also on the front page is a blurb for a story inside on Mary Wells, a sophomore at Lamar High who “appreciates a class with a challenge” and thus was the paper’s 38th, and very last, “Teen of the Week” for that school year.

It was business as usual, too, in the paper’s letters-to-the-editor section, which included off-kilter missives from locally renowned letter-to-the-editor writers W.A. Stubblefield and Carl Brownfield, who continued to ply their letter-writing avocation long after the Press was shuttered, and for all we know may still be writing away (or maybe …they’ve become bloggers!)

And then there is Maxine Messinger’s last “Big City Beat” column for the Press, which wheezes un-self consciously on with the usual collection of freeze-dried air kisses to the rich and locally famous, the faintly sleazy and, mostly, the clients of her PR buddies, the same kind she’d continue to blow for a jillion more years as a Chronicle institution. Almost every bold-faced, three-dot item is shot through with a nearly poignant yearning for World Class status … yes, even then:
THE LAST WORD: Houston’s folk singing group, The Rum Runners, got good reviews on their stint in Kalamazoo, Mich., and head from there to a stint at the Old Town North in Chicago. APA, one of the major booking agents in show biz, is interested in signing the fellas, and is using the Windy City date as a showcase for viewing ’em …”
Whoever said past is prologue wasn’t shittin’!

A few months after obtaining this artifact of what may or may not have been a simpler time we met a guy a little older than us who had grown up on the southeast side of town and graduated from Jesse Jones High, when it was an all-white institute of secondary learning, and whose father served on the Houston City Council in the 1950s. One day this fella showed us a photocopy of the front page of a Houston Press from 1957, which featured a huge picture of his father over a story in which the councilman was accused of soliciting bribes in an alleged scheme involving the redemption of MUD bonds in areas the city had targeted for annexation (which did sound like a fertile field for corruption).

The story was based solely on the otherwise uncorroborated allegations of two former bond traders (if we’re remembering correctly), one of whom had since entered the pet-grooming racket (or something like that), and it rambled along in an odd conversational tone as the reporter supplied such incidental details as one of the accusers lighting a cigarette and propping his feet on his desk while music from the “hi-fi” drowned out the traffic from Kirby Drive. It was strange, to say the least.

The fella told us that nothing at all happened after the story appeared, at least with regard to the allegations.

This fella, we might add, became a newspaperman.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Let the Weeping Philosophers Walk

Today’s inspirational verse, from “Popular Follies of Great Cities,” Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, by Charles Mackay, 1841:
He who walks through a great city to find subjects for weeping, may find plenty at every corner to wring his heart; but let such a man walk on his course, and enjoy his grief alone---we are not of those who would accompany him. The miseries of us poor earth-dwellers gain no alleviation from the sympathy of those who merely hunt them out to be pathetic over them. The weeping philosopher too often impairs his eyesight by his woe, and becomes unable from his tears to see the remedies for the evils which he deplores.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

A Question or Two about the Accused Cop Killer

According to Saturday’s Chronicle, Juan Leonardo Quintero, who’s accused of fatally shooting police officer Rodney Johnson, “had been working for a landscaping company in the Deer Park area and was driving a company Ford double-cab pickup” when Johnson pulled him over Thursday for speeding.

So, out of curiosity, what is the name of the Deer Park landscaping company? Who, exactly, hired Juan Leonardo Quintero, even though he had been previously deported from the United States after being given deferred adjudication for indecency with a child? And who, exactly, allowed him to use a company vehicle, even though he previously had been arrested for DWI, driving with a suspended license and failing to stop and give information after an auto accident (we presume he would have been charged with unauthorized use, if he’d taken the pickup without permission).

We’ll go out on a limb here and wager that Juan Leonardo Quintero wasn’t carrying proof of liability coverage, either, when Officer Johnson pulled him over.

If the shooting actually raises questions about immigration policy, the city’s or the nation’s, then let’s bring out all the parties to the equation. Let’s hear what the accused’s employer has to say.

After all, Juan Leonardo Quintero didn’t jump the border and come to Houston for the scenery.

And by the way: What kind of person packs a 9 mm handgun in his pants when he goes to pick up his daughters from school, as Quintero supposedly was doing?

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Everybody Wants to Be My Good Shepherd

Perhaps our president was right last week when he spoke of a revival of religiosity, a possible Third Awakening sweeping the countryside.

As usual, though, it’s hard to tell where devotion ends and all this newfound religiosity shades into an excuse for showy self-righteousness and license to get into your neighbor’s face with your faith.

In Texas, it’s getting real hard to tell.

The highly irreligious Kinky Friedman is all over the television these days, scratching the ears of various mutts and hounds while invoking some “old-time preacher” and telling voters he wants to be their “good shepherd.” (It’s a real good commercial, though---everybody’s a sucker for a forlorn pooch, right?)

Meanwhile, the purse-lipped Democratic gubernatorial nominee is claming to be all about Jesus, or maybe that he is Jesus, which is going to get him as many extra votes as his current strategy of running as if he’s still in a Democratic primary (zero).

But all that bald-faced piety pales next to the television advertisement we saw this Sunday for “Christian trial lawyers” Simmons & Fletcher, which featured one of the name partners wielding a Bible and walking in a sanctuary while explaining, “It’s not un-Christian to get what you deserve,” or something to that effect (we know this mixture of trial lawyering and overt Christianity is nothing new: John Devine, the former state district judge who displayed the Ten Commandments in his courtroom, was very tight with John O’Quinn, Texas’ preeminent ambulance chaser).

As generations of Texans have learned, it’s a good idea to watch your wallet when the revival comes to town.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Nothing Says “September 11” Like Subjecting a Captive Audience of Government Employees to a Middle-Aged Rock ’n’ Roll Fantasy

We owe the Houston Chronicle an apology for thinking the newspaper’s Monday story on the “odd pairing” of terrorist attacks and the fashion industry scraped the bottom of the barrel in 9/11 anniversary inanity. At the time we hadn’t heard about the 9/11 observance at a local school district headquarters where the featured entertainment reportedly included the district’s chief publicist, apparently on a short break from spreading Shinola about the local schools.

Our correspondents report that the mouthpiece did not entertain the assembled administrative types by reading a press release but instead was part of an aging amateur “rock combo” that flailed away at The Rising, Little Pink Houses and Let It Be (odd choices, those last two).

Well ain’t that America?

We didn’t witness the alleged show and can’t vouch for the accuracy of the reports. Surely someone is pulling our leg.

We’re gonna take another bath, just in case.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Nothing Says “September 11” Like Oscar de la Renta

Of all the remembrances, commemorations, think pieces and other media markings of the Sept. 11 anniversary, one stands out. Leave it to our very own Houston Chronicle to plumb the impact of the terrorist attacks on the fashion industry.

Perhaps this was an angle you had not considered, but, yes, apparently America’s brave fashion designer corps was unduly affected by the events of five years ago (and shame on you for not thinking of them!). What’s more, as a result al-Qaida has influenced not only where we travel and how we pack but what we wear. Check it out:
Every September since 2001, fantasy-filled fashion collides with the realities of an unsafe world. It is the oddest of pairings: Fashion Week — eight days of nonstop shows where next season's trendiest styles are unveiled — and the anniversary of the nation's most devastating terrorist attack. But the link is not as incongruous as it appears.

Fashion always reflects society. It's a mirror to what's happening. Look at all the camouflage clothing people are wearing now, when America is at war.
Yeah, we can’t recall anyone wearing camouflage before Sept. 11, especially not in Texas, especially not in the fall. (And now at least the families of the almost 2,700 Americans who’ve died in our false-premised war in Iraq have the consolation of knowing their loved ones were fashionably attired.)

So, you’re probably thinking, what about Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera and the rest of our front-line warriors against affordable and sensible attire?

Not to worry, somebody named Fern Mallis, identified as “Olympus Fashion Week organizer,” tells the local paper. They are unbowed and will unveil their spring 2007 collections on Monday.

The shows will stop for a moment of silence, "and then we go on," Mallis said.

"And that's the way it should be. We can't let (the terrorists) stop us from doing our work."

There’s more, but you can read it yourself.

We gotta go take a bath.

Friday, September 08, 2006

All Out of Pork Chops: The New Dylan CD Sucks the Milk from 1,000 Cows (Or At Least 500)

“I like cows, ’cause they faces are so round and brown and easy to understand.” - Lightnin’ Hopkins*

Driving back from Louisiana on Labor Day, listening for the first time to the new Bob Dylan CD, we caught our self thinking: When is the new Bob Dylan CD gonna be over? Because by that point, just outside of Beaumont, it was all receding into one wheezy, grinding aural blur, and we were growing groggy on the highway. Surely it would end soon and we could find something to our liking on the radio, there at the apex of the Golden Triangle.

But no … it went on. And on, well past the point where the landmark Red Carpet Inn used to stand. But we listened, dutifully, because we’ve always listened to what Bob Dylan has to sing and say, dating back to when Like a Rolling Stone was all over the radio in 19-and-65. We listened to Self Portrait---we liked Self-Portrait, and wish we still had ours---and even gave a borrowed copy of Under the Red Sky a couple of chances. When we were in high school we five-fingered Tarantula and read it through in study hall, and even though it was a distinctly bad excuse for a book we really liked the cover and wish we hadn’t sold it for a pittance at Half Price Books 20 years ago (’cause it’d bring a lot more on eBay today).

Later, we listened to Time Out of Mind and couldn’t figure out what all the critical fuss was about, then went back and listened again after several people whose opinion we trust told us how good it was (and still couldn’t figure out what the fuss was about). Love and Theft was better---we enjoyed the one where he stole the melody from a tune we know only as the background music for one of our favorite Lil’ Rascals episodes (when they were good: pre-Spanky)---but it’s not like we spent a lot of time with it after the first five or so spins.

But we had hopes for the chart-topping Modern Times, primarily because of Bob’s recent extracurricular activities. Chronicles was as engaging a book as everyone said it was, and his Theme Time Radio Hour on the satellite radio (which we download here, in the spirit of love and theft) reveals the host to be a generous and affable codger with an appreciation for a variety of great American music and a penchant for precise diction.

The reviews have been uniformly positive, if not downright gushing: the guy at Slate called it his best since Blood on The Tracks (a grievous misestimation: Modern Times isn’t fit to occupy the same shelf as Infidels, much less Street Legal) and just yesterday we heard Imus pronounce it a “great, great” album (Imus’s tastes in music are sketchy, although we’ve seen Levon Helm on his show twice---this is still a great country when you can wake up and see Levon Helm perform live on TV at 6:30 in the morning).

We couldn’t say Modern Times is a horrible album; it’s just flat, turgid and uninteresting. A low listenability quotient, if you will. We did take note of that line we’d previously read about, the one where he boasts (or confesses) to having “sucked the milk out of a thousand cows.” This might have been funny on Highway 61 Revisted; on Modern Times it sounds creepy.

Oh well. Maybe it’s just that we, too, sometimes feel old and raspy and diminished, and would rather not be reminded of that.

We’ll give it another listen …

Addendum: We’ve listened again, twice, and it’s our considered opinion that Modern Times contains two decent songs that warrant further listenings: Thunder on the Mountain (the one where he sucks the milk from 1,000 cows and rhymes “sons of bitches” with “orphanages”) and his appropriation of Rollin’ and Tumblin’ (“I got troubles so hard I just can’t stand the strain/Some young lazy slut has charmed away my brains …” [Maybe that’s the problem!]), but it's not even Cream, much less Muddy Waters.

Which means Modern Times would have worked better as a 45.

(Workingman’s Blues #2 threatens to turn interesting at points, but he’d have been better off doing a straightforward remake of Merle’s Let’s Rebuild America First.)

The rest of it … we’ll file next to Saved.

Further Addendum: Ron Rosenbaum has an idea why Modern Times sucks so many cows: It’s the Bobolators!

*Lightnin’ Hopkins may not have said this. Maybe it was John Lee Hooker. Or some friend of ours.