Monday, February 27, 2006

This Week’s Award for Hyperbolically Mindless Rhetoric and Outrageous Overstatement, Made With the Certainty that You'll Never Be Called On it …

… goes to Cornel West, who, according to the
Houston Chronicle, offered the following while speaking this past weekend at conference on the “State of Black America” staged by radio talker Tavis Smiley at St. Agnes Church in south Houston:

There's a parallel between the killing fields of the slave ships ... and the killing fields of the Super Dome.
The Chronicle did not provide elaboration on West’s likening of the hurricane aftermath to the enslavement of Africans and their shipment to North America, but you can be sure that the Princeton professor of Afro-American Studies went on at length on the subject after Smiley declared himself angered "by the absence of any reference to Hurricane Katrina and the devastation in New Orleans" in President Bush's State of the Union speech last month (which, if that's what Smiley actually said---his remark ws paraphrased---is not exactly true).

But hold on: According to the Chronicle
One of the most strident panelists of the day was actor and activist Harry Belafonte who again called the president a terrorist and reminded the audience that the murders of civil rights leaders, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, were acts of domestic terrorism. "This is not the first covenant," he said. "The civil rights movement and all we did was rooted in a covenant. I hope we will leave here today, with a sense of rebellion and a true sense of revolutionary action."
Belafonte must have been a lot more "strident" than that, since it's rare to see the Chronicle drop the unblinkered stenographic approach and actually describe a speaker as "strident." But based on those most likely narrow selections of the day's offerings, we’ll give the edge to West, as far as stridency goes.

Being an academic who specializes in a dubious discipline, West probably doesn’t consider himself bound by the same laws of rhetorical gravity that apply to most would-be experts, but you'd expect an Ivy League professor to approach a discussion of the "state of black America" with a bit more seriousness---and modesty---than, say, a singer and actor.

West drew a paycheck from Harvard until his feelings were bruised a few years ago by university president Larry Summers (now recently resigned), who had criticized West for, among other things, recording a rap album instead of devoting himself to serious scholarship.

That was the CD that West famously declared on his own Web site to be a “watershed moment in musical history.”

As you’ll recall.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Houston 77019: No Fatties Allowed

Each month National Geographic spotlights a particular zip code in the nation on which God shed his (or her) grace. This month the magazine examines, with a barely perceptible arched eyebrow, the folkways of Houston’s 77019, which includes River Oaks.

“Survival of the Richest” it’s called, written by Texas Monthly's Mimi Swartz.

According to the demographic groupings formulated by
Claritas, one of those scary precision-marketing outfits, River Oaks 77019 is home to that slim stratum of highly desirable Americans designated as “Upper Crust.” No segment of the populace has "a more opulent standard of living," Claritas reports (“lifestyle traits” include spending $3,000+ on foreign travel per year, watching Wall Street Week [is that still on?] and driving a Lexus ES300 [Jesus, but money is wasted on the rich, isn’t it?]). Other demo profiles that inhabit the zip code include something called Bohemian Mix (“early adopters who are quick to check out the latest movie or nightclub”) and of course the Young Digerati ("the nation’s tech-savvy singles and couples ... "), which we believe Claritas had previously labeled the “Young Literati,” back last year before reading complete sentences went the way of the Olds 88.

But to our newest Port commissioner, 77019 is more than a stale computer-conglomerated collection of “lifestyle traits.” It’s a destination.

“I’m not moving out of 77019,” Elyse Lanier tells National Geographic. "It took me a long time to get here, and I’m not leaving."

That’s good to know. We were worried.

The hook for the article, sort of, is the chatter than Lynn Wyatt may be vacating her perch atop the local Social Heap, for reasons that go undisclosed (although mentioned in passing is hubby Oscar’s recent federal indictment for allegedly paying kickbacks to the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein to get cheap oil under the U.N.’s oil-for-food program. If we’re not mistaken this is the same regime whose overthrow and replacement [with ?] has cost the lives of more than 2,250 non-rich Americans---“Survival of the Richest” indeed!).

La Wyatt does not speak to the “improbable madness” of her possible declension, although she allowed herself to be photographed, looking fashionably cadaverous in Ray Charles sunglasses, with the River Oaks Theater sign as a backdrop.

More relevant, apparently, are Wyatt’s would-be successors, including one Becca Cason Thrash, who is pictured while perched astraddle two chairs at an otherwise empty La Griglia, strapped in a "python-skin jacket" and looking quite insane. At Thrash's fetes “the chic are fussed over” but “the overweight are not permitted,” National Geographic reports.

Such a shame, that the world must learn of this so soon after we received all that good publicity for our open embrace of Katrina refugees, regardless of their pants size.

We were left wondering, though, if Thrash's barring of the non-slim extended to the husband of Elyse daughter Courtney Sarofim, also pictured and chronicled in the article (now a "respectable" mother, despite youthful "party-girl" behavior). We seem to remember the Sarofim scion---Christopher, we think his name is---being a tad on the tubsy side, although maybe he’s gone South Beach and shed a few. But we’d guess that with his dough even the surplus poundage isn’t a deal breaker.

Ah, well. This seems like another job for the Cultural Coach.

Recommended journeys to more accessible zip codes:

Banjo Jones, who’d never discriminate against the overweight, recently visited Oklahoma and found it more than OK.

… While
on The Block in Fightingville, 70503, the operative request at Mardi Gras wasn't “Throw me something, mistah!" but “Don’t beat me, mistah!”

And Break Yo’ Head With a Hot Corn Bread ...

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

A Midnight Walker, A Sweet Soul Talker

Note: The following is a self-indulgent personal recollection that offers no insight at all on the critical issues of the day. Despite our suggestion that the author cease and desist, it contains the passing use of a derogatory slang term for the female genitalia which adds nothing to the pointless exercise. It is recommended for mature audiences. --- Hidalgo Hidalgo, chief copy editor and senior reader representative, Slampo’s Place

When Wilson Pickett died recently it got us to reminiscing about Preston W----. We haven’t laid eyes on Preston in a good 30 years, or had much reason to think about him in the meantime, but we remembered he used to go around singing that Wicked Pickett song, I’m a Midnight Mover.

We met Preston when we were in 11th grade. We were first introduced to his fist, punching our right arm as he said, “Hey, boy, g-g-gimme a dime.” He had a horrible stutter.

Preston was very black---blacker than midnight, as they used to say---and already had a couple of gold caps up front. He wore his hair in a short, neat Afro that he obsessively primped with one of those picks. His nose was large and broad, framed up top by two perpetually bloodshot eyes. He wasn’t much taller than we were, that is, on the moderately short side, but he was built like a bull, like someone whose naturally endowed physical strength had been enhanced by years of hard physical labor. He had an intense, musky odor. He was a full-growed man.

They had just integrated the schools in our town, after years of ignoring or trying various ploys to circumvent a federal judge’s desegregation ruling. In a typical move of the times, they---and by they we mean the white folks who were under the illusion they ran things---closed the one black high school in the city and split the student body between the two white high schools. Preston ended up at ours, and thanks to alphabetical ordering we ended up in P.E. class with a locker next to his, around a corner from and out of sight of the main body of lockers where the rest of the class dressed out. Back there with us were three other black kids and David S-------, a short, non-athletic white kid who was fairly strong but not someone we would count on to come to our assistance in the event of a fight.

The second day of class, Preston hit us again: BAM! “G-g-gimme a dime.” “I don’t have a dime.” BAM! “G-g-gimme a nickel.”

This went on for a day or two more. Finally, toward the end of the first week, we came back with a line we had privately rehearsed: “You can keep hitting me all you want, but I’m not giving you nuthin’.”

BAM! “G-g-gimme a quarter.”

By then we decided we had to come up with a new strategy. We were never one who would have gone running to a teacher for help---to us, at that time, most of the adults at the school (with a few exceptions) seemed to be sad, stunted individuals, not really attentive to much of anything that was going on in front of them, and the coaches were the worst. But for some reason Preston’s attempted shakedown didn’t bother us that much, maybe because he never seemed to be putting anywhere near full force into his punches, or maybe because we never detected actual malice in his demands. It was mechanical, depersonalized, like maybe he forgot we were the same white boy he was trying to punk everyday. We started to study him a bit and noticed that he was surreptitiously putting the squeeze on almost any other white kid who wasn’t a head or two taller than he was.

Strange days had found us, as a marginally popular song of the day proclaimed. The adults had slammed black and white kids together for the first time, with little guidance. (We think there was an assembly right after school opened at which an assistant principal sort of acknowledged the novelty of the situation and then basically admonished the 3,500-plus students to behave. It was like, OK, last this school was almost lily white, this year it’s 40 percent black, and nobody’s real happy about it, so deal with it. The job of multicultural sensitivity adviser had not yet been imagined.)

It was shameful, of course, the way they did it, and even a blunt 16-year-old could see that.

Things were changing on other fronts, too. Pot was starting to seep in beyond the few hardcore hippie types at the school---called “pies” in the parlance; people were coming to school and dropping acid or mescaline in first period and having life-changing experiences later in the day when they jumped on a trampoline in P.E. or cut class to buy donuts. A girl we knew was taking birth control pills. In the mornings, after our parents left for work and before we’d leave for school with our friend across the street who drove the little Anglia, we’d get pumped up for the day by cranking the volume on Black Angel’s Death Song from an album called The Velvet Underground’s Greatest Hits [sic], which a friend (now long dead) had shoplifted from a chain record store in the only mall in town (years later, we realized that the song was a paean to suicide, but at the time we just enjoyed its mad forward thrust).

By the second week or so of P.E. we dressed out to play basketball, for some reason. Maybe it was too hot to go outside, or maybe that was the first sport the class was supposed to play that year. We had a small talent for the game which we hadn’t been putting to much use, and when the class split up into teams we found our self matched up against Preston. The first time we got the ball he ran up and got in our face, waving his arms and cackling like maniac, but we drove past him and laid it in with such little effort that it made us laugh. We dropped in two or three more baskets on him, then throttled back.

He didn’t react they way we thought he would: At the second or third basket he hollered out, “P-P-Pistol Pete!” like he was cheering for us. Then he doubled over and exclaimed, “He shamin’ me!” He thought it was funny.

From then on we were his asshole buddy. Whenever teams were picked for P.E., whether it was for basketball, football, volleyball or softball, he had to be on ours. He would wrap us in a bear hug and drag us out of the milling assembly: “S-S-Slampo on my team!” It turned out he talked a lot but wasn’t that good at sports, although in retrospect we can’t understand why one of the dumbass coaches didn’t try to put him on the offensive line and have him clear a 10-yard hole upfield. He was capable of that, if someone had bothered to work with him.

For the first two or three weeks of that year we had been mistakenly (or perhaps not) placed in a regular English class, and while waiting for our mother to straighten it out with the school so we could be moved to the “smart” class we sat in the back with Preston and two disagreeable white assholes who both were repeating 11th grade. Most of the back-bench chit-chat revolved around Preston’s professed amazement that, as he put it, “You white boys eat pussy.” Whenever the teacher was writing on the board or had her back turned, Preston’s head would be on a swivel as he’d dart his tongue between the upraised middle and index fingers of his right hand. He’d crack himself up, and the first time we saw him do it we laughed, too, in spite of our self. By the 30th or 40th time it had gotten old. But this was a subject that endlessly fascinated him. “S-S-Slampo,” he’d say, “You eat that p-p-p-pussy?” “Oh yeah,” we’d say, “every day.” And he’d crack up, doubling over and letting out that cackling “Awwwww ….” kind of noise.

Whenever Preston would see us in the hall, he’d do a little James Brown spin, blurt out “Owww!” or “Hit me one time!”, then holler “S-S-S-LAMPO! What happen’?” Or he'd start singing, “Say it loud: I’m BLACK AND I’M PROUD!” He never stuttered when he sang.

We kind of dug those moments, as it was clear that not only did most of the white kids view him with fear and real loathing, but almost all of the black kids gave him a wide berth, too. After our senior year started we made the mistake of strolling out to the parking lot behind the stadium and sharing a smoke with him. He got buzzed quickly and fell silent. After that, when he’d spot us in the halls he would occasionally call out, “S-S-Slampo, you got a JOINT?” This was not good advertising at that particular place and time.

We’re not sure whether he finished out the 12th grade with our class. We didn't have any classes with him, so our contact was limited to passing in the hall. A few times during the early part of that year we would approach as he fiddled with his locker and could smell the stench of liquor. His eyes would be narrowed and unusually bloodshot, and he would look as if all the natural exuberance had been tamped out of him.

It wasn’t like we were close friends with Preston, or even friends, in the traditional sense. We never asked where or with whom he lived, or what he liked to do besides listen to soul music and act like a crazy man at school, nor did he so inquire of us. The one thing he and I most likely had in common was that neither of us had eaten any pussy at that point. Looking back, we realize he was probably lonely. For all the connection he had to anything that was going on at that school he might as well have been taking the bus to the woods outside of town each morning.

We last saw Preston three or four years after we graduated, at the Student Union at the local college. He was coming toward us from the other end of a long hallway, sauntering along in his diddly-bop fashion and pushing a broom, one of those big janitor’s brooms. He spotted us first: “S-S-S—lampo! Owww!” He did his little JB turn, holding on to the end of the broom handle. We stopped and did the soul shake and exchanged pleasantries, then he and I moved on down the hall in opposite directions.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

EnWritten and EnBlogged: The Good, the Great and the Merely Pedestrian from the First Three Weeks of This Year's Trial of the Century

Our reader representative, Hidalgo Hidalgo, who’s been assigned to scan the Houston Chronicle while we finish our giant colored-macaroni collage of David Stern we hoped to unveil at halftime of the NBA All-Star game, reported to us earlier this week that his counterpart at the daily newspaper had proudly noted that the publication had gotten a pat on the back for its “excellent” Enron trial coverage from CBS Martketwatch.

OK, it’s not a Pulitzer. But it’s something.

We must confess that our own passion for Enron trial news, while white-hot when the show opened, had cooled to a low, dull flame by midway of the second week. We’re down most days to a peek at the first few graphs of the Chronicle’s main story, along with a full reading of Loren Steffy’s columns and the occasional gander at his Full Disclosure blog. Steffy’s the genuine article: he can report, write and think on his feet (and possibly chew gum as well, we don’t know the dude) and he’s got his Enron facts and context down cold from having covered the sprawling epic as a reporter before he came to the Chronicle. Still, he’s got to walk that fine line of MSM decorum, although he’s made it pretty clear he wouldn’t be too upset if Lay and Skilling were stripped to their boxer shorts, placed in stocks in Market Square and subjected to the public ridicule of their fellow Houstonians from sun-up to sundown for a few months (he had a great line in his Friday column regarding one sleight-of-hand behind Skilling’s fiction that Enron Broadband Services was worth $35 billion: “It’s a mind-bending concept, the accounting equivalent of a black hole, a bottom line without a top line.” [Emphasis added])

The Chronicle’s trial reporting for the actual newspaper has been pretty good, too, although the Trial Watch blog, written (and real quick, too) by the reporters who are watching the trial (clevah!) for the paper, already shows signs of exhaustion, with headlines such as “Redirect begins just before lunch” (hope it was long one) and entries such as this:
Before former Enron Broadband Services CEO Ken Rice resumed testimony Thursday afternoon, he arrived back at the witness stand early and looked overwhelmingly bored as he waited for prosecutor Sean Berkowitz to continue redirect. Then someone commented on the springlike weather. "It's such a beautiful day, I [sic] would be nice to be outside instead of in here," Rice said. An open microphone broadcast his thoughts to the spillover gallery.
Apparently he’s not nice when inside. But that's a notch or two above this dispatch:
Today, the three rows of reporters in the courtroom remained filled but fourth-floor overflow room now has plenty of seats …Several reporters are commenting on the frigid temperatures in the overflow room and some are not too happy about the noise. Just after the trial broke for lunch, one reporter requested a couple of chatting journalists to keep it down while he wrote. The response? A flat out "No!" A war of words ensued climaxing with an offer of "You wanna step outside?" The offer was laughed off and no fisticuffs occurred. The room is still cold and the work continues.
Fascinating! Another no-fisticuffs moment. That was just the second day of the trial.

One thing we have noticed, though, is the uniformly reverential approach the Chronicle has taken to the proceedings, as if it were covering a Kennedy funeral (JFK, RFK or JFK Jr.). This tendency is especially pronounced when the paper writes of any attorneys involved in the trial: Prosecution, defense or judge, they are all brilliant legal minds, master courtroom tacticians, honors graduates of the finest law schools and devilishly handsome (except for the lady prosecutor, we guess) and/or exceedingly well-coifed. As opposed to being overpaid bullshitters with Bar cards.

Even their perfume smells exceptionally sweet--- even when they slather it on in the potentially toxic quantities usually favored by 6th grade boys! (Skilling mouthpiece Dan Petrocelli must be a real piece of work---after the newspaper reported that he offended a juror’s olfactories by overdosing himself on his perfume [what a brilliant legal strategy!] the paper was forced to run a correction saying it misidentified the cologne because of bad information it was provided (by ... ?). In both the original Page 1 story and the correction, the sweetish stink was branded Tabacco by i Profumi di Firenze. The was the second bizarre correction the paper has published regarding an Enron barrister, and we’ll leave it to greater minds than ours to figure out why. [We used to wow the ladies with a fragrance called tobacco, back when we burned 2 or 3 packs a day.])

Which is why we so enjoyed a full-throated, foul-mouthed diatribe on the trial by Matt Taibbi in the recent Rolling Stone (a magazine we ordinarily read once or twice a year, if we find one laying around the babrershop or must make an especially long airline flight, but which for some reason has been delivered to our home, unbidden and apparently gratis, for the past few issues). Taibbi, a drop-in who doesn’t have to worry about offending the lawyers, the defendants or their attendant flacks, cranks out a spew of bracing invective at the whole sorry spectacle, providing a nice complement to the Chronicle’s fair and balanced coverage. The overly-sweetish-smelling Petrocelli is
Grating and pompous … a fat-faced, heavily moussed Californian …
While prosecutor John Hueston empties such a grab bag of tortuously mixed metaphors that Taibbi finds himself writing in his notebook:
Enron: Big rubber barrel full of trucks.
Trucks=shitty investments.
Describing the corruption of Enron is like describing distances in the universe: impossible to express in rational numbers. Hence the dump trucks and cookie jars.

The local counsel, Lay mouthpiece Mike Ramsey, is a “likeable character with a homespun demeanor” [read: a good actor to an out-of-town audience] who Taibbi says injected a somber note of believability in the bullshit when he proclaimed, in his client's defense:

"Failure is not a crime …"

Only to undercut it with a colossally inappropriate non sequitur:

"... If it was, we’d have to turn all of Oklahoma back into a penal colony---heh heh."

Taibbi writes:

The courtroom didn’t laugh with him; not a peep from anywhere in the room. This is how Ken Lay asks for forgiveness---by calling all of Oklahoma a bunch of losers?

We couldn't find Taibbi's piece online, but you can probably check it out next time you visit your barber (unless he or she also perms the silvery locks of Dashin’ Dan Portobello, uh, Petrocelli).

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Let’s Get It Over With and Change the Name of the Town to Lopez de Santa Anna, Texas

Let’s see: The Los Angeles-based owner of Houston’s Major League Soccer franchise wants a new soccer-only stadium, which his local representative, the former head of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, has said won’t require taxpayer money. The team is named 1836, but after a supposed uproar (confined mostly to media and academic circles) over the name, the team accedes to what the Houston Chronicle describes as “a radical measure … demanded by many in the Mexican-American, corporate and political communities” and agrees to change the name (as soon as they can come up with something).

Just the sort of people you wouldn't want to offend if you were looking to dragoon some local government with bonding authority into partnering with you to build a new stadium.

This was such a pressing issue that the lone Hispanic on Commissioners Court, whom we sort of like (or did), felt it necessary to have an emissary---and a gringo at that!---meet with the team owner in Los Angeles to come away with an assurance that 1836 is history. (Hope we didn’t pay for that trip.)

Again, from the Chronicle:
Although 1836 was meant to symbolize the year Houston was founded, it also has links to other significant events some Mexican-Americans might find offensive. Those include Texas' independence from Mexico, the Battle of the Alamo and the defeat of Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna's Mexican army at the hands of Gen. Sam Houston in the Battle of San Jacinto during the Texas Revolution.
Says Plucky Ollie Luck, the former sport authority head who’s now president of the MLS team, "We believed, and many people still do, that 1836 was a great name because it symbolized the founding of the city, and we thought people would rally around that. But obviously we hit a bit of a raw nerve within the Mexican-American community."

It’s true that we don’t get out enough, but we haven’t heard any Mexican American complain about the name. Nary a one. And neither has this guy, who’s either the reigning or dethroned champ-een political operator in the local Hispanic community.

For reasons obscure to even us we watched the Municipal Channel’s replay of the ceremony at Lanier Middle School at which Luck and Co. unveiled the 1836 name, and we recall seeing City Councilman Adrian Garcia taking the stage that day and rambling on at length about what a super-great-wonderful name 1836 was, etc. (said effusions causing us to wonder whether the councilman was, like, on the team payroll).

Yes, things are changing around here. By “here” we mean Aztlán.

On Wednesday evening we heard some reporter from Channel 11 proclaim that her station was the only station the judge had allowed in the courtroom to film the trial of the bus driver who’s accused of taking a branding iron to the backside of his girlfriend. That’s exactly what the reporter said, implying that Channel 11 is so wonderful that the judge barred other locals from darkening his or her chamber’s doors with their cameras. We presume that what actually happened was the judge let Channel 11 in to provide pool coverage for the other stations and thus keep the commotion in the courtroom to a minimum (or maybe the other stations didn’t bother to ask to be let in). But in case we’re wrong, we’d like the name of that judge …

On Thursday evening whe heard Rice University’s Bob “You-Need-A-Quote” Stein proclaim on Channel 11 that City Councilwoman Carol Alvarado is “fighting for her political life” because of the payroll scandal in her mayor pro tem office. Stein felt confident enough to issue this judgment less than 24 hours after news of the scandal broke and when very few actual “facts” are known.

But that’s thing about Bob: He'll let nothing stand in his way when it comes to giving good quote.

We’re glad to see that Dick Cheney, a frequent visitor to Slampo’s Place (or maybe we have him confused with somebody else), took our advice to man up and come out to publically discuss what he called his “unprecedented” wounding of a hunting buddy (if sitting down to chat with Britt Hume can be considered “coming out”). We did concur wholeheartedly with one thing Cheney said: that the Corpus Christi Caller-Times is “just as valid a news outlet as the New York Times is” as far as being the recipient of the call from the South Texas rancher lady who informed the world of the unfortunate mishap. Except … the call should have come from Cheney’s office, about 20 hours earlier than it did. (And what’s this about his self-proclaimed authority to leak classified information? The man’s becoming more creepily Nixonian by the day.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

One or Two Habits of Effective Leaders, Of the Deadly and Non-Deadly Varieties

The public conversation over the relative merits of Vince Young versus David Carr was (is) notable in the way that it seemed to turn readymade racial stereotypes about athletes on their heads. For those of us who favor (and try to live out) what we like to call “deracialization,” that’s a salutary development.

From what we can tell---and we have to confess that we haven’t hung on every word of the conversation---the primary argument in Young’s favor turns on his possession of that intangible quality of leadership, as opposed to the white guy, whose talent in that area has been questioned (we understand Young’s a hell of an athlete, too).

That’s progress. Usually it’s the white guy who’s got the “intangibles,” although being slow of foot and relatively immobile, etc. Leadership, as anyone with a passing acquaintance with real life can tell you, knows no color. (Speed, on the other hand ... )

We have no pressing opinion on the possibly now-settled case of Young vs. Carr, although we of course were awed by Young’s Rose Bowl performance and almost as impressed by his post-bowl appearance before the Houston City Council, at least the snippet of it we caught on the TV news. Speaking to the mayor and council, Young, sounding at ease and unforced, said something like, “Every time [Longhorn teammate Selvin Young] and I come back home and go out, we’re like, ‘Dang, they got something else new going on,” meaning some newish World Class attraction or another. (Wait till he and Selvin visit The House of Blues!) You could almost see the grinning council members’ egos balloon up right there on camera.

It’s rare that someone Young’s age can blow smoke up his elders’ ass (and politicians' asses at that) and not sound like Eddie Haskell.

That's leadership …

… and then there’s Dick Cheney.

While the Wounding of Harry Whittington has taken a turn from the comic to the potentially tragic, it’s still a handy metaphor for the ongoing deterioration of the Bush administration, much as Jimmy Carter’s attempt to fend off that “killer rabbit” with an oar seemed to somehow sum up the ineffectuality of the pious president from Plains (and we say this having liked J.C., a bit, until we had the misfortune of meeting him in person).

It’s not so much the shooting itself----accidents will happen and mistakes will be made, as we know from our misadventure in Iraq. Cheney’s winging of the Austin lawyer---and from the descriptions of the incident it appears Whittington is as much to blame---is just another manifestation of the pattern of bumblefuckery the administration has established, from the record deficit-spending through the bollixed Katrina preparation and response (not to mention the misadventure in Iraq).

Most Americans can stand a little (or even a lot of) incompetence, even, apparently the sort with deadly consequences. It’s government, after all. But the arrogance on top of the incompetence is the killer.

It’s bad enough that the shooting wasn’t revealed to the public for almost a full day, and then through a self-appointed intermediary for Cheney. What’s truly appalling is Cheney’s refusal to emerge from wherever he goes to speak publicly about the episode.

Cheney needs to man up. Then Bush would be wise---and show he’s really in charge---by figuring out some way to ease the old boy back to the private sector.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Another Story from the Great Southwest

We heard this one the other day, about a woman who lives with her disabled adult daughter and a granddaughter in an apartment near where we're hunkered down in southwest Houston. She’s a professional with a decent job but burdensome expenses, including a three-bedroom apartment necessary to accommodate her family. But life in her complex, while far from idyllic before, has become nearly unbearable since the arrival of Katrina evacuees, an almost non-stop rolling civil disturbance of loud music, gunfire, frequent police calls and people hanging out at all hours.

The woman still retains sympathy for her neighbors who were displaced by the storm, and she understands that they aren’t all to blame for the near-breakdown of civility at her complex. But it’s gotten so bad that she’s desperate to move … except she can’t afford to.

Which got us to thinking that perhaps the mayor could wrangle some FEMA money for Houston residents who’ve had to find new place to live because of Katrina ... But seriously: It’s become apparent that the citizens and institutions bearing the greater burden of Houston’s generosity are those that probably can least afford to---most especially the public schools. As has been widely reported, the largest numbers of Katrina refugees in Houston were settled into vacant apartments in the vast plains of sprawling complexes on the southwest side, and most of the kids were enrolled in schools that already had their hands full with at-risk students from the apartments and English-as-a-second-language children of immigrants, legal and otherwise.

Just something to keep in mind the next time you see the politicians and civic leaders patting themselves on the back for all the favorable publicity the city reaped for welcoming the evacuees.

The best dispatches out of New Orleans, by the way, are being written by Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose. This guy has been drawing a trenchant psychic map of uncharted territory, veering between resolution and despair and sadness and anger, usually in the same column, while maintaining a fierce sense of humor about mostly unfunny subjects. Rose has collected his post-Katrina columns in a book, with some of the proceeds being donated to relief efforts for music and the arts in New Orleans (check out his New Year's column recalling his attempt to make amends for a bottle of mouthwash he “looted” after the hurricane, and try to remain unmoved). In this profile in the Lafayette weekly The Independent, Rose says reporting and writing after the hurricane “gave me a deep and profound understanding and respect for mental illness.”


Cold blast from the recent past:

[New Orleans writer] Kalamu ya Salaam told me that he thought the suffering was far from over … For the moment, people are focused on the grace of their own survival, and are grateful for the small and large acts of compassion that have come their way. And yet, he said, “you are going to see a lot of suicides this winter. A lot of poor people depend entirely on their extended family and their friends who share their condition to be a buffer against the pain of that condition. By winter, a lot of the generosity and aid that’s been so palpable lately will begin to slow down and the reality of not going home again will hit people hard. They will be very alone.

“People forget how important all those Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs are for people. It’s a community for a lot of folks who have nothing. Some people have never left New Orleans. Some have never seen snow. So you wake up and you find yourself beyond the reach of friends, beyond the reach of members of your family, and you are working in a fast-food restaurant in Utah somewhere and there is no conceivable way for you to get back to the city you love. How are you going to feel?”

-- David Remnick, The New Yorker, Oct. 10, 2005

Friday, February 10, 2006

We Are All People of Color ... Even Michael Jackson!

Last week we were riding somewhere in our car and listening to a show on KTRU, the sometimes-too-hip-for-its-own-good radio station at Rice University. It was called The Soul and Funk Hour (or maybe The Funk and Soul Hour) and was hosted by a deejay who sounded decidedly un-funky and un-soulful. He was touting a movie called Afro Punk that was to be shown that night at a local lounge (we think). The lad explained that the movie was about
what it’s like to be a, um … colored per…. uh … colored person … in the punk scene, which of course is mostly Caucasian …
Colored person? It’s probably been 30 years since we’d heard a white person use that term in coversation, and longer than that, or maybe never, on the radio. When we were growing up “colored people” (or “the coloreds,” as Archie Bunker used to say) were the people who lived in what white folks called “Colored Town” (or Coloredtown.)

The deejay hesitated a bit before he fully enunciated, so maybe he meant to say “person of color” but couldn’t bring that socially acceptable term trippingly off his tongue. Or maybe “colored person” has been adopted by and deemed suitable by African Americans, the same way “queer” has been neutralized by our gay brethren, and we missed the memo. Or maybe this guy is just young and ignorant! (This is the station where we’ve heard deejays, on two occasions years apart, announce that they had just played cuts by the great accordionist Clifton shin-NAY (we think they meant Clifton Chenier, as in Clifton shi-NEAR.)

But that’s OK by us. We certainly won’t be turning this young feller into the Cultural Coach for a re-education session. He immediately got back into our good graces by spinning a very soulful and funky remix of one of our favorite songs of all time, I Want You Back, by that noted band of colored people from the early 1970s, the Jackson 5.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

A Walk Through the Canyons of the Upper West Side (Of This We'll Speak No More)

We rarely permit our self more than a cursory engagement with the editorial page of the Houston Chronicle. That’s not because the editorials are especially bad---in fact, we’d be hard-pressed to deny that the paper’s entire op-ed operation has gotten noticeably better in the past five or six years. It’s just that we’re among the legion of attention-deficited readers who generally head elsewhere when our eyes fall on those large grey blocks of unbroken type, and too often when our eyes do linger the writing radiates the obvious fatigue that must come with having to take a position and issue a grand Olympian pronouncement on every issue/conflict/concern that comes a’rollin’ down the toll road of life.

Then again, on the six or seven issues that generally rouse us, the ones that bring out the dour little polemicist inside (whom we try to keep stashed deep in the recesses of our being, next to our inner gay antiques-dealer), we find that the Chronicle editorialists more often than not reflect the parochial prejudices and tastes of the Upper West Side. And we don’t mean Memorial and Tanglewood.

What we mean is more of an Upper West Side of the mind, an aerie far above (and far removed from) the grubby street-level concerns of the average property-owning, tax-paying, card-carrying member of the petty bourgeois, the demo that still accounts for the great majority of a newspaper’s readership.

We cite as an example this offering on the State Board of Education’s move to consider supplanting the current system of bilingual classroom instruction with the English immersion model that has proven successful in raising the test scores of non-native English speakers in California.

The editorial is relatively mealy-mouthed when it comes to taking a discernible stand on the issue, which is OK by us, as we know how hard it is to pretend to be correct all the time and then change your mind the following day. But the subhead over the editorial, “Politics should not determine how we teach English to Spanish-speaking children” (which oddly did not comport with the headline, “Little Sponges,” referring to kids’ capacity to suck up new languages when surrounded by, as the paper puts it, “foreign speakers,” which we presume in this case would be speakers of that foreign language known as inglés), nicely gives away the paper’s true sentiment. The editorial wends its way through the issue and then comes down firmly in favor of doing what’s best for the kids (Yes! How novel!) before concluding:

Analysis of language instruction must be done in order to reverse high Hispanic dropout rates and increase the number who go to college. However, the question should be resolved in the best interest of students, as indicated by the data. An atmosphere of hidden agendas and open resentment of immigrants will only prevent sound conclusions.
The Chronicle has run one story on the SBOE’s planned consideration of English immersion, and nowhere in that story was there a hint or suggestion of any immigrant-bashing or hidden agendas. If we can be as presumptuous as the editorial writer, recent history would suggest that the demagoguery and hidden agenda will be the property of those opposing English immersion.

As for politics: No, we shan’t have any of that intruding on what is essentially a political issue. And we in Texas with an elected board of education! If we can be so presumptuous and offer this English-language translation: what the editorial means by “politics” is politics we don’t agree with.

But that’s how it is in the Upper West Side of the mind. Those who somehow might find reason to disagree with your position on, for instance, illegal immigration or bilingual education are more than likely ignorant, nativist know-nothings with hidden racist agendas. Bah. A few weeks ago we saw NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell blithely proclaim on some talk show that rising concern about illegal immigration is “racist.” This from the wife of Wal-Mart Nation’s most revered economist whose personal contact with illegal immigrants is probably safely limited to the bus boys she and her husband ignore when they’re chowing down at some five-star diner.

Oh well. We meant to devote this space to our memories of Cactus Records (part of the series “Shopping Experiences We Fondly Recall”) but we see our dour little polemicist is loose again. We’ve armed our inner gay antiques-dealer with this Venetian gilt metal chandelier and told him to bring that sucker down at all costs.

On a mostly unrelated note, it has been brought to our attention that Slampo’s Place was quoted in a Chronicle story (for the first and probably last time) on the metastasizing media indifference to the big trial downtown. This citation has fulfilled a lifelong dream to be mentioned in the same newspaper story as Garth Jowett, the communications professor at the University of Houston whose talent for saying the obvious (and in a delightful foreign accent) is matched only by that of Rice University’s Bob “You-Need-A-Quote” Stein. (Fortunately for our mother, circumstances dictate that we be mentioned only under the secret code name we use to blog and in transactions with our tax consultant at the Beechnut storefront and with our transsexual Thai masseuse---we’ve never been clear whether he/she is a transsexual specializing in Thai massage or Thai transsexual who gives massages, but either way it works for us.) So if we die in a fiery crash on Loop 610 later tonight, we’ll go to our reward knowing we made a difference, although we suppose this means we'll have to start proofreading again.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Bilingual Education and the 'Reality of the World': Head-On Collision in the Making

The State Board of Education will begin consideration this week of moving Texas classroom instruction away from the misnamed “bilingual” model to the successful English-immersion programs implemented in California and other states. Such a move, if the board eventually decides to make it, would be a fairly momentous and long-overdue step toward improving public schooling in the state.

Let’s be clear: Bilingualism is good, trilingualism is better, and quadrilingualism is just about the bee’s knees. Being able to speak two (or more) languages---and better yet, being literate in two (or more) languages---is one mark of an educated person (and, Lord, we wish we wuz one). But what’s transpiring in too many Texas classrooms isn’t “bilingualism”---it’s almost entirely Spanish-only instruction (and, because of the shortage of bilingual teachers, delivered more often than you’d think by a teacher whose English skills are only marginally better than our ability to communicate in Spanish---that’s scary), with 30 or 45 minutes a day set aside for desultory English instruction, including “English only” ancillary classes---P.E., music, art, etc. (“Hey, no Spanish here---we’re doing our stretching exercises in English today!”) Not exactly a strong foundation for English-language literacy.

These monolingual “bilingual” classes do the kids a terrible disservice. They go through too many of their school years communicating and learning almost exclusively in Spanish (although many of them, even the younger ones, have some English-speaking skills, thanks to television, video games, etc). Then they hit the “transition” year, when they’re finally supposed to be shifting over to English instruction (sort of), and---BAM!---they’re broadsided by having to take the 5th grade TAKS exams in English, etc. Success on standardized tests depends to a great extent on mastering the basic vocabulary of the subject---science, social studies, language arts and even math---and that’s where many of these children are sorely lacking.

The gap widens in middle school, and it’s not a great speculative leap to suggest that bilingual education contributes to the high dropout rate among Hispanic teenagers once they hit the 9th grade. On the face of it, it’s an absurd system, one that’s taken deep root through a confluence of political and academic hackery and general public ignorance and/or indifference.

If the SBOE actually wades into the issue, prepare to hear the predictable howling from the predictable quarters, similar to that which accompanied the Houston school district’s effort to revise (kinda sorta) its bilingual policy several years back. According to this Houston Chronicle article, the state board plans to hear from a representative of the Lexington Institute, a think tank that pushes “market solutions” to public-policy issues, so already you can hear defenders of the current system grousing about a right-wing Neocon conspiracy, whatever. Expect academics and editorialists to dig up studies and heart-rending anecdotal evidence purporting to show the benefits and successes of bilingual education. But as Ron Unz, the California businessman who spearheaded the California initiative for English immersion, said a few years ago:
The war is over, at least it would be over if academics were willing to look at the reality of the world rather than their own research.
At this point, the SBOE is supposedly in an information-gathering phase, but at least that’s a start.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Sheila and Ken: The True Story of Their Forbidden Love

Sheila Jackson Lee’s unequaled talent for getting her face and intricately braided hair (or hairpiece) before the public is once again eliciting sighs of disgust and mass eye-rollings, thanks to a dispatch from the Houston Chronicle’s Mary Flood, a real reporter who’s being forced to play blogger during the big trial over at the federal courthouse (and hopefully getting a sizable stipend for the double duty).

Flood reported that the “ubiquitous” congresswoman (“ubiquitous” having become the ubiquitous descriptive for Jackson Lee; we can’t think of a better one at the moment but will gladly take suggestions) showed up at the Enron trial Thursday, where she duly planted kisses on Ken Lay and his forlorn-looking wife, Whatshername.

But Sheila wasn’t down at 515 Rusk just for the smooches and face time. She owes Ken Lay, and it wouldn’t have been all that surprising if the congresswoman had gone ahead and planted a big wet one on either of Lay’s pasty lower cheeks. For in addition to being the crook or dumbass (whichever you prefer) who presided over the biggest corporate failure in U.S. history, Ken Lay also must shoulder more than a modicum of blame for the election of Sheila Jackson Lee to Congress.

Back when the Ubiquitous One set out to unseat fellow Democrat Craig Washington in [whatever year that was], it was Lay who took Jackson Lee under his wing and acted as her connector to the pocketbooks of Houston’s corporate bigwigs, giving her a needed leg-up in fund-raising. Lay was her key supporter, in fact.

Washington---obstinate man of principle and/or shady self dealer (whichever you prefer, or both)---had P.O.’ed Lay and others in the city’s corporate elite for his refusal to play ball on natural gas deregulation and other issues dear to them. Jackson Lee, while just as liberal as Washington, was viewed by Lay as more malleable and personally agreeable. (If we are not mistaken, that was the campaign during which Jackson Lee called on Washington to take a drug test, which Washington said he would do if Jackson Lee agreed to take an IQ test. Washington was a likeable sort, despite his shortcomings.)

Because there are no African-Americans on the jury (according to the Chronicle), and because we doubt the no-nonsense judge would permit the congressional cheek-pecking to take place in eyeshot of the jury, we assume that Jackson Lee did not grace the court with her presence as part of some smarmy defense ploy. There is a precedent for that sort of thing, though: We remember when Rusty Hardin was defending former Oilers QB Warren Moon a few years ago against charges he had cuffed his wife, and one afternoon Clyde Drexler showed up unannounced in the Fort Bend County courtroom and spent the better part of an afternoon sitting in the gallery behind the defense table. The Glide, mellow as always, just stared up beatifically at the jury. Moon walked.