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.