Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Opening Arguments in Favor of Lightnin' Hopkins Park

Should a city that recently inducted ZZ Top into its “Hall of Fame”* think twice about paying tribute to the genuine article by naming its new downtown park after Lightnin’ Hopkins?

No, it shouldn’t. And there’s hope. With such notable tastemakers as Banjo Jones and John Nova Lomax endorsing the idea, the momentum is building. It’s only a matter of months, if not weeks, before the Houston Chronicle editorial board hoists itself aboard the late train and gets behind Lightnin’ Hopkins Park.

Surely Billy Gibbons, who became a jillionaire appropriating the vocal mannerisms and guitar stylings of elderly black men, would appreciate the justice of such a gesture.

(Gibbons figures in that most telling but possibly apocryphal of Lightnin’ Hopkins anecdotes: As a member of the pre-Top Moving Sidewalks [99th Floor---best song he ever had a hand in, outside of Francine, of course], the young Gibbons, after catching Hopkins at a local venue in the late ’60s, supposedly remarked that Hopkins didn’t even know when to change chords, or something to that effect. Hopkins overheard and set the smirky Tanglewood native straight: “Lightnin’ change when Lightnin’ want to.” If that story’s not true, it should be.)

So we’re hoping that Gibbons might take up the flag and wheel himself before the Houston Downtown Park Conservancy directors or the city council or even the Chronicle editorial board to pitch for Lightnin' Hopkins Park.

With Gibbons walking point, could Carolyn “Doc” Farb be far behind? And Sheila Jackson Lee only a little farther?

It’s not a vote, however---it’s a contest, so if Gibbons has Internet access he could go here and register his entry for Lightnin' Hopkins Park (Lightning Hopkins Park would be fine, too.)

Then, if the three people who read this blog go here and also submit their entries for Lightnin’ Hopkins Park, and contact their three friends and urge them to do the same, and those three friends contact their three friends, and those three friends … perhaps the Downtown Park Conservancy would have no choice but to bow to the wisdom of the people.

Dig: I am Spartacus! (Deadline is Sept. 18.)

Except for the rightness of the cause, why else would any nominally sane person enter this contest? It couldn’t be for the prizes (dinner for two, a “collection” of Astros merchandise, a “framed political cartoon” by the Chronicle’s editorial cartoonist** [which would bring how much on eBay?]).

But the Downtown Park Conservancy has criteria for its selection---serious business, this park naming---so let us address those forthwith and explain why Lightnin’ Hopkins Park is the only informed choice. The conservancy wants the name to:

Reflect the spirit and uniqueness of the park: Lightnin’ Hopkins was idiosyncratic, contrary and wholly sui generis. We can’t speak to the uniqueness of the park.

Position the park and its amenities in the minds of Houstonians and visitors: There can be no argument: Lightnin’ Hopkins Park stays with ya.

Possess marketing and branding potential: The sky’s the limit when to comes to peddling mugs, T-shirts and other trinkets bearing Hopkins’ likeness, preferably the one of him beaming out that megawatt leer with a mentholated 100 hanging off his lip. He has living relations, though, so the city might have to share with them.

Be representative of Houston's diverse history and communities: Hopkins' home base was Third Ward and he was a fixture on Dowling Street, so there’s one community---a historically black one---right there. The Dowling connection establishes a link to another of Houston’s grand eccentrics, the Irish barkeep Dick Dowling, who famously routed the Yankees at Sabine Pass in the service of the South’s efforts to keep Lightnin’ Hopkins’ forebears enslaved (two communities). And Dowling came to rest in the cemetery at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, thus giving Lightnin’ Hopkins Park claim to cover all three of Houston’s major ethno-racial bases.

Distinctiveness from a regional standpoint: As much as you can stand. Obviously.

Ability to lend itself as an easy-to-remember Web address: Sure. Claim the domain today.

Having some historic or geographic basis: See “Be representative of Houston's diverse history and communities.”

Oh, somebody will argue that Lightnin’ Hopkins, with his card playing and beer drinking and obsessive-compulsive need to rub that same old thing, is not a suitable role model for the city that dug the Ship Channel, nor is it likely he would be eligible for a deaconship in 2nd Baptist Church.

Much like the guy they named the town after.

* Houston has a Hall of Fame! Who knew!
** The actual contest entry is submitted to the newspaper’s Web site, meaning entrants get the privilege of being counted as visitors to chron.com.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Guy in the Rear Was a Methodist

Every once in a long, long while we get an e-mail from a reader whose corporeal acquaintance we’ve haven’t made asking something along the lines of, “Say, man, what’s the deal? Or you a right-wing crank or a left-wing crank, or are you just pulling your crank?” (These may be from the same “AE” who wrote a few weeks ago to ask if we could tell him the best place to find a prostitute in Houston.)

We’re tempted to dismiss these queries by claiming to be neither liberal nor conservative---ah, where have we heard that one before?---and that we simply consider each issue on its merits and then come to a studied conclusion.

But that of course would be a big, fat, pompous lie, at least the latter part. We know that our politics bubble up from a stewpot of inchoate resentments and yearnings, most likely because we were raised in East Texas and Southwest Louisiana, although we generally try to work through those, as the lady we were paying a $100 an hour advised us to do many years ago.

So we usually write back we’re both or somewhere in between, or if we’ve got a few minutes explain our longheld fealty to the idea, if not the reality, of anarcho-syndicalism. It’s not that we’re trying to dodge the issue, it’s just that we’ve come to the station in life’s journey where folks who claim to be “liberal” or “conservative” (or, hell, “independent”) and than begin expounding pre-fab, party-line opinions that supposedly accord with those labels strike us as somewhat infantile, as being unschooled in the vagaries of life, as wanting to ram all the jagged and irregular pieces of the puzzle of existence into a neat formation, or formulation. (Today’s talking points: Goo-goo, ba-ba.)

Or they act as if they’re suffering from some form of mental illness, like the chairman of the Republican National Committee appeared to be when we saw him on TV last weekend.

What set us on the meandering jag was a series of essays in the current issue of our cousin Pat Buchanan’s American Conservative magazine, a sort of roundtable of conservative authors, academicians, pamphleteers and front-porch rockers who were posed the questions, “What is Left? What is Right? Does it Matter?” These questions seem to have been prompted by the high disregard most of the contributors have for the neoconservative misadventure in Iraq (Buchanan’s magazine, by the way, has offered some of the most perceptive, and prescient, writings on the war, dating back to before the war began; unfortunately, not much of the magazine is available online.)

All of the pieces are worth reading, although we’d especially commend the one by Boston University professor Andrew J. Bacevich, who drives the nail home most resoundingly:
The insiders who dominate U.S. foreign policy have a vested interest in sustaining the twaddle about an American Century. After all, it cements their hold on power. The American Century emphasizes secrecy and deference to those who are presumably “in the know.” It shields members of this self-perpetuating elite from accountability. It provides a handy cloak for megalomania and a ready excuse for error. It keeps debate over foreign policy and its implications narrow and insipid---as the Democratic critique of the Iraq War has demonstrated. It excludes the great unwashed.

American exceptionalism is a delusion. The beginning of wisdom in foreign policy lies in seeing ourselves as we really are and in acknowledging our responsibility for the mess in which we find ourselves, in Iraq and elsewhere. When it comes to extricating ourselves from that mess, the first order of business is to clean up our own act. Principled liberals and authentic conservatives will disagree on how best to do so, but that surely is a debate worth having.
Ta-ta. Got to cut ’n’ run.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


We see the city of Houston is conducting a contest to name the new downtown park. We’re sure the winning entry will reflect the cosmopolitan character of the city---say, something urbane and sophisticated like World Class Centre. But before we end up there, all right-thinking citizens should rise up and demand that the park bear the name of one of the city’s most beloved cultural ambassadors, the late Sam “Lightnin’ ” Hopkins.

It was some years ago (we think) that every Houstonian’s favorite busybody on the city council, Eleanor Tinsley (we think), tried to stir some interest in getting something or other named after Lightnin’ (it was a street … we think). But that effort went nowhere, and in the meantime somebody raised a statue of Lightnin' in the hoppin' burg of Crockett, where he spent 15 or 20 minutes.

Now Houston has a chance to right that wrong, to honor a man who, as much as any perpetual resident of Lawndale Cemetery, embodied the country-come-to-town spirit of the city.

A park would be a fitting tribute to Hopkins, too. A park is for relaxation and recreation, two of the enduring themes of Hopkins’ prodigious recording career, whether he was singing about throwing dice or watching the ponies run or getting drunk last night and the night before or traveling to Louisiana to acquire a mojo hand that would mess up a woman’s mind.

Yes, we can see ourselves throwing a Frisbee and listening to Bald-Headed Woman in Lightnin’ Hopkins Park, right there in the shadow of the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The L. Ron Hubbard Cone of Opportunity

We're back at the home desk after being called away for what turned out to be a couple of demanding weeks. During that time we witnessed strange and disquieting events, not least among them the sight of a wilder-eyed-than-usual Pat Robertson, unshackled and without attendants, broadcasting from Israel (actually, he claimed to be almost in Lebanon, just a few hundred yards from the border), where he shut his eyes as tight as a human can without passing out and called down the Lord's blessing on an Israeli victory.

The Lord once again turned a deaf ear to the reverend's prayers, apparently, but the 700 Club superstar looked so deliriously happy that we fully expected to hear he'd strapped himself to an Israeli rocket and taken a Slim Pickens-style ride into suburban Beirut in an effort to personally usher in The Rapture.

Almost as disturbing was the news from a recent edition of the Gannett-owned Lafayette, La. Daily Advertiser (link unavailable) headlined "Tracking Growth: Hurricanes Help Expand Outreach of Scientology," which reported that membership in the spooky outfit's local "mission" had doubled after "hurricanes Katrina and Rita roared ashore last fall."

"Many initially considered Scientology a cult, and its members misguided souls," the Daily Advertiser related with the straightest of faces. "But the works of its members, including those in Acadiana, continues [sic] to change that perception as the church grows in size, outreach and number."

Scientologists have won new converts all along the Gulf Coast by providing "shelter, food, supplies, counseling and other much needed support"---not to mention the much desried "right technology"---for hurricane evacuees.

Well, that's what the newspaper said.

This was a consequence of the hurricanes we had not previously considered.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Three Cheers for the Remorseful, Well-Adjusted Inmates of Death Row!

It was a veritable anti-death penalty hootenanny in Sunday’s Houston Chronicle, which devoted a remarkable amount of space to the promotion of a new book by Joan M. Cheever, a former managing editor of the National Law Journal and daughter of a prominent San Antonio banking family who, in what is surely just a coincidence, graduated from St. Mary’s Law School a few years before Kathryn Kase, the wife of Chronicle editor Jeff Cohen and herself an anti-death penalty activist.

In what must surely be a further coincidence, the Chronicle
accorded (1.) the lead review in its books section to Cheever’s Back from the Dead: One woman’s search for the men who walked off America’s death row. The reviewer was none other than David Dow, who was identified by the newspaper only as a distinguished professor at the University of Houston law school and not as the director of the Texas Innocence Project or as a vigorous promoter of the innocence of convicted killer Max Soffar, who was unsuccessfully defended in his recent retrial by none other the above-named Chronicle editor’s wife (and sent back to death row, despite the punishment-phase testimony from would-be governor K. Friedman).

Needless to say, Dow’s review was on the favorable side.

In fact, there wasn’t a questioning word or detectable arched eyebrow in all the many inches of space that the Chronicle dedicated to Cheever’s book, which included (2.) a piece by the author on the front of the paper’s Outlook section (with the unfortunate overline “Random Acts of Killing”) and (3.) a full page inside the op-ed section of excerpts from the book (with the helpful notation “This book is available in all bookstores.”), not to mention (4.) an audio interview with Cheever “plus a photo gallery” and a death penalty forum available on the paper’s online version.

This must be one hell of an important book, right?


Cheever’s book explores the post-death row lives of some of the 589 Americans who were spared by the Supreme Court’s 1972 decision declaring capital punishment unconstitutional. According to Dow, the book is “extraordinary” in two ways: (1.) “Most people, I suspect, tend to think that murderers will surely murder again,” he writes. “Cheever’s story demonstrates the contrary.” (That is, of the 322 of the 589 “lottery winners,” as Cheever calls them, who were spared state-sanctioned deaths by the Supreme Court’s soon-to-be-reversed decision and were eventually released on parole or after serving out their sentences, 111 ended up back in confinement or eligible to be returned to prison [we don’t necessarily find this a comforting percentage], but only two were convicted of attempted murder, two of manslaughter and three of murder, including notorious badass Kenneth McDuff [how come nobody ever takes up that fucker’s case as an argument against the death penalty?])

The “second astonishing aspect” of Cheever’s book, according to Dow, is (2.) “how remorseful and well-adjusted” the author finds so many members what she also calls “the class of ’72” (ohhhh …) to be.

This all leads Dow to conclude that Cheever has shown that “somewhere between most and almost all residents of death row are capable of reform, and that somewhere between almost all and all are capable of living law-abiding lives outside of prison [emphasis added] or nonviolent lines inside an institution.”

Dow is deploying the straw man that intellectually dishonest foes of the death penalty (which is not all foes of the death penalty, but lots of them) usually strap to the gurney. The argument goes like this: A justification for capital punishmen supposedly put forth by its supporters is deterrence, that is, ensuring that killers are never free to kill again and that would-be killers are deterred from killing because of the possibility they could wind up on the receiving end of a lethal chemical cocktail (which even death-penalty advocates must admit is a dubious proposition). But as Dow sees it, there’s really no need for deterrence because capital murderers are sorry they were bad and probably won’t kill again. So there’s no moral justification for capital punishment. There’s not even much need to keep capital murderers locked up for too long …

We’re not sure whether this is a view that Cheever endorses, since from the excerpts the Chronicle presented it’s unclear what conclusions she’s drawn or what she proposes, other than noting her desire that Texas do what it finally got around to doing last year and grant juries the option of assessing a life without parole sentence.

According to what the author wrote in the blurb for her book at amazon.uk.com
Writing Back From the Dead was my way of answering a question that troubles many of us: if convicted killers are released from prison, will they kill again?
This is a question Cheever found bothersome after witnessing the 1994 execution of Texas inmate Walter Williams, who Cheever represented on appeals (in what was her only stab at practicing law, at least according to Dow’s review).

We can’t speak for the “many” or the “most,” but we can say that this is not a question that in any way has troubled us.

What we do find troubling is the illogical notion that the death penalty is somehow rendered morally indefensible because a man convicted of capital murder can be “rehabilitated,” or pretend to be rehabilitated, and shows “remorse” for his crime, or pretends to show remorse … after years of failed appeals and near-solitary confinement. Equally troubling is the notion that because the posted odds are so slim that a convicted killer will kill again---and Cheever quantifies this conclusion based on a narrow subset of killers (most of whom were long past their prime killing years when cut loose)---he or she is deserving of a pass back to the free world.

We suspect the true nature of Cheever’s endeavor is summed up by her book’s subtitle: “One woman’s search … “ The self-infatuation doesn't escape Dow's notice:
I learned more than I really wanted to about what Cheever ate for breakfast at a diner in South Carolina and for dinner at a McDonald's in Texas. I was not terribly interested in the quality of the motel rooms where she slept, or about how nervous she was in the presence of some of the murderers she tracked down to interview. She goes on for too long about the stressfulness of representing a murderer, the difficulty of juggling a demanding job with a new marriage and new baby, and her mother's incomprehension of Cheever's determination to pursue the story.
Yeah, we see.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

What the World Needs Now ... (Is a Frappuccino in the Mornin')

Shares of Starbucks took a quick tumble last week after the chain reported that sales in its stores open longer than a year rose by only 4 percent in July. Only 4 percent, you say. Yet, as the Wall Street Journal noted Friday, that ordinarily respectable figure is well below the 8 to 10 percent increase in same-store sales “to which investors had grown accustomed.”

According to the Journal
Starbucks blamed the July sales slip on the unexpectedly heavy demand for cold, sweet Frappuccinos in the morning, spurred by heat waves across the country. Frappuccinos take longer to prepare than most drinks because they’re mixed in blenders, topped with whipped cream and drizzled with sweet toppings. That made Starbucks’ frequently long lines even longer, driving away customers, the chain said.
Some cynics aren’t buying that fragrant explanation, suggesting that consumers are cutting back on the non-essentials or grabbing their coffee at Dunkin' Donuts now that a gallon of gasoline costs almost as much as a tall (y'know, a small) Frappuccino without the sweet drizzlings. Not so, says Starbucks chief executive Jim Donald, who
dismissed the notion that slowing sales growth is due to “macroeconomic” trends. “We’re not just a shop to buy from,” he said. “We’ve always said that Starbucks is an affordable luxury. We’re that connection that, during these times, times of concern, customers come through our doors and have the respite.”
In an effort to connect ever larger numbers of anxiuous Americans with this balm for troubled times ...
Recent expansion has brought Starbucks into more small towns, inner cities and spots off the freeway. While that has broadened its customer base, it also may leave the chain more exposed to customers who cut back on extras when gasoline prices climb and credit-card bills mount.
Not to mention the electricity bill.

We've noticed Starbucks' recent metastasization into the less affluent precincts, such as the corner of Hillcroft and the Southwest Freeway, the famous multicultural crossroads of southwest Houston, where an outlet for respite sprang up a year or so ago in a new strip center that appears to be otherwise devoted to the merchandising of cell phones. And up in the Brazos Valley, where we travel occasionally to take in the air, the chain not only has staked out three or four locations in relatively rich College Station (including our favorite Starbucks in the entire nation, adjacent to an indoor firing range), but will soon open shop in the fraying and resolutely downscale burg of Bryan next door. We see a day, not too far ahead, when even Alief is no longer Starbucks-less.

The Wall Street Journal says chain excecutives are eagerly eyeing the Frappuccino-hungry hordes in China, Russia and India and envision one day blanketing the earth with 30,000 Starbucks (only 19,000 more to go).

Only then will Satan be consigned to the dung, and a thousand years of peace reign on Earth.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

More Proof That Evolution May Not Be Fact

… As ripped from today’s headlines. No, actually, as ripped from the front page of the March 23, 1923 Bryan Daily Eagle (no link available):

Texas Public Schools Must Not Teach Monkey Business as Fact
Evolution Can Be Set Forth as a Theory---Compromise Been Reached On Pope Textbook Bill---"Truth in Fabric" Bill Now Ready for Governor's Signature or Veto
(By Associated Press) The House today engrossed, 69 to 32, the Stroder-Howell bill prohibiting the teaching of evolution in all public institutions of learning in the state. Evolution is interpreted as the theory that mankind sprang from some lower form of life.The bill forbids the teaching of it as a fact ...

Glad that issue was settled.

We mean the "Truth in Fabric" controversy.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Trip to Another Country

We’re late with this---we’ve been out in West Texas, on the annual trail drive---but we’d be remiss in not unreservedly recommending a piece in the Houston Chronicle’s Outlook section of Sunday past. In this rare side excursion to reality, the paper opens its pages to one John Perry, who, based on objective evidence compiled by his own eyeballs, shreds the blithely promulgated myth (by the Upper West Siders on the Chronicle’s editorial board, among many, many others) that illegal immigrants only take the jobs “Americans won’t do,” or however the song goes.

Like anyone who journeys outside of Nuevo Aztlán, Perry noticed something was missing as he drove to Alabama through Louisiana and Mississippi.
Here's what I didn't see: Hispanic workers on those road and housing construction crews. All the crews were made up of black men and white men. All the maids I saw at the hotel were either black or white. The wait staff in the restaurants I ate at were black and white.
Going to Alabama was a real eye opener. I'd almost forgotten what it was like to see people who look like me (I am black) doing road construction, building houses or making beds in hotels.
Sheesh. He had to go to Alabama for that. If you’re a Houstonian---white, black, brown, whatever---doesn’t that make you just a teensy bit ashamed? Mr. Perry continued:
I don't think the majority of people who oppose illegal immigration and the hiring of illegal immigrants in so many occupations are anti-Hispanic. People who oppose job outsourcing aren't necessarily anti-Indian or anti whatever ethnic group is working those outsourced jobs.

When you cut through all the emotional and heated rhetoric, you come to the real kernel of truth — there are only so many jobs and so many resources to go around. Our economy just cannot absorb every person that comes across our borders illegally looking for his or her slice of the American Pie.

There's just not enough pie to go around.

And as the pie gets smaller and we all have to struggle to get our little piece of it, people born in America become more and more resentful of those we are increasingly seeing as "outsiders."

The profits that illegal immigrant workers generate for many businesses have blinded those businesses to the damage they are doing to the American economy. And to the American sense of nationhood.

We are at a dangerous place in America today, and I fear that massive civil unrest will occur once Americans grasp just have much we have been duped (and have been taken advantage of) … As a black man, I have always been for diversity because I understand that diversity means people who look like me can be included in all aspects of our society. Diversity assumes difference in color, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and political views.

But I don't think diversity means we give up the unifying power of a common language and culture. To give up our common language and culture (yes, I believe that people born and reared in the United States share, for the most part, a common culture even if there are some variations on how we live that common culture) is to invite the balkanization of our nation.
That should be “culture,” Mr. Perry, at least according to the sneering formulation employed at least once by the Chronicle editorial page.

Perry was identified as a Houston resident who works with at-risk students in the Alief school district, meaning he probably spends a considerable amount of time with kids who are illegal or whose parents are illegal. Given the likelihood that someone, somewhere, is going to accuse him of bigotry, it was at least a small act of courage for him to speak out in such a public forum.