Friday, November 30, 2007

Congo, Meet Oscar

Friday’s New York Times brought news of Congo, a four-legged denizen of the “well-to-do Ivy League town” of Princeton, N.J. One of six German Shepherds who populate the household of Guy and Elizabeth James, Congo last summer mauled a Honduran landscaper named Giovanni Rivera. Four of the Jameses' other pooches joined in the attack on Mr. Rivera (the couple says Congo was provoked when the dog-shy landscaper “became scared of [Congo] and grabbed Mrs. James.”). Mr. Rivera, who “received 65 rabies shots … and spent five days in the hospital after a three-hour operation, according to his lawyer,” has accepted a $250,000 settlement form the Jameses’ insurer. In October, a municipal court judge in Princeton Township “declared Congo vicious and the attack unprovoked.” Having made that determination, the judge had no choice under New Jersey’s “vicious dog” law but to order that Congo be put down.

But hold on---the bell tolls not for Congo, at least not yet. According to Times scribe Sarah Kershaw

State Assemblyman Neil M. Cohen, a Democrat from Union, has introduced legislation, which he calls Congo’s Law, that could spare the life of Congo and other dogs in similar situations by giving judges more discretion in meting out punishment.

And now, thousands of people from Princeton and elsewhere are petitioning the governor for a pardon. (There is precedent for such things in New Jersey.)
And during Congo’s trial …

The Jameses also submitted to the court dozens of letters from character witnesses and others who had come into contact with Congo during his 18-month life.

“I have had the pleasure of knowing Congo over the past two years and feel confident in stating that my relations with him have always been friendly and warm,” wrote one friend of the family.
Nevertheless, and despite the “more than 4,000 telephone calls, letters and e-mail messages on Congo’s behalf” that have deluged Gov. John “Speedy” Corzine’s office, the shepherd passes what could be his final days under a sort of Death Row/House Arrest arrangement while his masters appeal the judge’s decision to a superior court.

This story struck a faint bell, but we couldn’t immediately locate the source of that feeling of déjà vu. Then we remembered: It was just a few days ago that we had learned of a similar outpouring of testimonials on behalf of another Alpha Male who ran into legal trouble, Houston oilman Oscar Wyatt (once semi-famously rendered a soggy, Croce-esque canine cliché by Texas Monthly, or maybe it was Good Housekeeping, which described the old boy as “meaner than a junkyard dog.”) Thanks to the “amazing letters” attesting to the humanitarianism and all-around wonderfulness of the 83-year-old husband of redoubtable socialite Lynn, a U.S. district judge on Tuesday sentenced Oscar to less than the minimum dictated by federal sentencing guidelines for paying kickbacks to the regime of Saddam Hussein in return for oil- purchase concessions. According to the Houston Chronicle, a Wyatt attorney said he couldn't remember another time "when a judge had gone below an agreed-upon sentencing range."

Obviously the testimonials worked much to the favor of Oscar Wyatt, who will probably spend less than a year in prison while poor Congo awaits an uncertain fate in the New Jersey judicial system. Then again, Congo never donated $20,000 to the Houston Police Department after being impressed by an officer who had stopped him for a traffic violation, and thus was unable to secure a letter of recommendation from former part-time Houston mayor and part-time police chief Lee P. Brown.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Hell You Say!

Unseen dangers lurk, especially during the holiday season, but fortunately experts are standing by with invaluable counsel. We only wish we had read the dispatch headlined “Think twice before drinking and shopping” in Friday’s Houston Chronicle before we waded out into the deranged mobs that besieged our local establishments of commerce. According to the author, John Campanelli of Newhouse News Service,
The Baylor College of Medicine even issued a public advisory about it several years ago: "Don't drink and shop during holidays." Sipping and shopping "impairs judgment and decreases inhibitions," psychiatry professor Kristin Kassaw cautioned. "You may find shopping bags full of impulse buys that you might ordinarily think twice about."
What’s worse is drinking and shopping while packing a loaded handgun, which we understand could possibly be the subject of a more recent advisory from our august local medical school.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Absolutely Bestest Show on TV (As of This Fleeting Moment in Time)

A few weeks ago, while hurriedly passing through on our way to some larger point, we made the not-so-novel observation that HBO’s The Wire was the best show on television. We’re afraid, however, that this grand pronouncement proved to be just another of our transitory enthusiasms, because at the time we had not seen Last Dance, which we stumbled across on one of those cable stations that’s way, way up there on the digital dial.

You’ve seen Last Dance, haven’t you? The show about the geriatric dance troupe that travels from town to town, chasing the Terpsichorean muse and searching for late-life adventure? And by “dance” we don’t mean Arthur Murray or Lawrence Welk-style hoofery or even square-dancing or boot-scootin’. Nope, Last Dance shows America’s elders in all their butt-twitchin’, arm-thrusting, synchronized hip-hopping glory. It’s a brilliant idea (apparently no one has taken credit for Last Dance’s creation, although we detect the subtle hands of both The Sopranos’ David Chase and Deadwood’s David Milch, as well as some other guy named “David”), because if there’s one thing that Americans love even more than Joel Osteen, Internet porn and salty snacks, it’s watching old people dance like teenagers. And with the first of the nation’s Baby Boomers now eligible to draw Social Security, Last Dance is demographically right on time.

You can tell that Last Dance is something different from the opening credits, when a phalanx of Harley-riding geezers comes roaring out of the darkness, into the sunshine and toward the camera, their turkey wattles flappin’ in the breeze while Psychotic Reaction rises on the soundtrack (not the Count Five original, either---the Brenton Wood cover, which as scholars long ago confirmed is simply the backing track of the Count Five version with the Oogum Boogum Man’s vocal dubbed on top; Last Dance is too hip for the room---any room!). We can’t get enough of the dance routines, especially the weekly show-closing to Super Freak, but it’s the finely drawn characters and their stories that have kept us coming back week after week. The conceit, of course, is that all the dancers are over 70 and thus when off-stage susceptible to the insults of old age---tight bowels, loose dentures, dowager’s hump, debilitating arthritis, permanent erectile dysfunction, unexplained grumpiness, etc. When the lights go up they come alive as “one organism,” as the troupe’s director, a finicky 73-year-old gay man with a heart of gold, always says, but during their off-hours the characters fuss and fight, pair up for furtive sex (this is cable, so if you’d be offended by the sight of two fully unclothed 80 year olds going wham-jam on the queen-size of $79-a-night hotel room you’d best steer clear of Last Dance), commit gross infidelities, become addicted to gambling (slots, mostly) and various drugs (prescription and non-prescription), and are occasionally stalked by homicidal maniacs. It’s just like ER or Grey’s Anatomy (neither of which we’ve ever watched, so we’re just guessing here), except with an older cast and a grouchy female lead whose signature expression is “Suck my c—k, c---sucker.” (Again, the subtle hand of Milch?)

In an early episode that has “Emmy” written all over it, one of the troupe’s two black males decides he’s gay and “comes out” at age 83. His fellow dancers are accepting, except for one---the remaining straight black male of the troupe, who derides his former friend as a “butt-wheedlin’ sissy” (again, it’s cable). Of course, the bigot sees the error of his way after the newly gay character rescues him while the troupe is out ice fishing between Wisconsin engagements. The episode ended with a massive group hug, and if it doesn’t bring tears to your tired eyes have someone call the coroner, ’cause you ain’t got a pulse, Chester.

There’s a little somebody for everybody on Last Dance---a WASPy incontinent former corporate lawyer whose last divorce, from a 17-year-old Guatemalan mail-order bride, left him bankrupt and in need of work (“All my life, I’ve wanted to dance---to just get down,” he confides to another character). There’s a remarkably well-preserved Indo-American female named “Shiva,” as well as real-live American Indian (played by a real-live Indian) who often sits out the dance routines because they “shame” his ancestors. Our favorite, though, is the crotchety old Jewish guy, who is casually revealed in an early episode to be Israeli, which explains why he’s rude to everyone, including his 101-year-old mother, who travels with the troupe doing their laundry and whose frequent lapses into “dementia” provide some of the series’ more poignant plot twists. There’s even an elderly Italian-American, an ex-Mafioso with no 401(k) who looks suspiciously like the guy who played “Paulie Walnuts” on The Sopranos (it couldn’t be him, could it?).

Well, anyway, check it out: Last Dance is much, much better than John from Cincinnati.

Wait, scratch this posting: We just saw Drinking with the Stars.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Product Placement

A while back our local daily newspaper began running advertisements on its previously sacrosanct section fronts. That was fine by us, because we understand the challenges faced by hugely profitable monopolies in today’s complex and competitive media and information environment. We fully expect to awake one morning in the near future and find the front page plastered with ads. That, too, will be OK. After all, the reader who can’t tell the difference between an advertisement and a news story---or even an advertisement masquerading as a news story---probably has more pressing matters to attend to than scanning the daily paper.

Yet we must acknowledge being somewhat nonplussed by a recent development in the Houston Chronicle: that of advertisements literally jutting into adjacent news stories. We first noticed this phenomenon several months ago on a page inside the front section of a Saturday edition. The ad was a two-column page-length strip for the 2007 line of Jeeps and depicted three models whose front bumpers protruded in a most unfortunate manner into a half-column of the adjacent news copy. Two of the three vehicles were nosed right into a reprint of a New York Times dispatch on an acknowledged but never-convicted pedophile whose “exhibitionistic blogging about his thoughts on little girls” had riled parents in Los Angeles and raised vexatious free-speech questions.

We tried to finish reading this most interesting story but just couldn’t get past the blithe blurring of the line (the literal line!) between news and advertising. Then there was the slogan that had involuntarily arisen in our mind: “Jeep Commander Limited: The Ride Preferred by the Blogging Pedophile of L.A.!” Perhaps this was just a one-shot experiment, we thought, but as usual we were wrong: Just this Friday the front ends of a whole ’nother line of Chrysler products were parked in a news story, this one about a Holocaust survivor from Belarus who was orphaned at 7 but managed to hang on until the end of the war as a "mascot” of pro-Nazi Latvian troops. Those protruding Chryslers sort of cheapened the story for us, if you dig where we’re coming from.

This must be a fairly effective advertising technique, though, because on Saturday Jeeps were poking out into stories all over the front section (“MySpace hoax called reason for suicide,” “Japan, U.S., tout common ground”* and “North, South Korea make multiple deals”**).

We wonder whether the Chronicle has considered the possibilities this layout style holds for those “Super Sex pill” advertisements.

*Future Pulitzer finalist for "Most Scintillating Headline in a Daily Newspaper with Circulation of 500,000 or Above."

**Runner-up to Pulitzer finalist.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Me and Julio (and Fred and Lamont and Roberto and Dionny) Down by the Schoolyard, Then and Now

In episode 76 of Sanford and Son, recalled by posterity only as Julio and Sister and Nephew,“Fred's anti-Puerto Rican attitude suddenly changes after Julio's nephew is the victim of discrimination in school.” That’s according to, the Web site for the cable network on which we viewed Julio and Sister and Nephew just this Saturday night.

Like most one-line summations, the TVLand listing fails to capture the nuance of Julio and Sister and Nephew. Julio, played by a rangy character actor you used to see on TV a lot, usually portraying a badass in some crime drama, is Fred’s noble Puerto Rican neighbor and often the target of the irascible L.A. junkman’s coarse ethno-racial repartee. In the aptly titled Julio and Sister and Nephew, Julio’s sister and nephew come to L.A. from the old country and, for reason or reasons we missed while in the kitchen fixing supper, wind up lodging temporarily in Fred and son Lamont’s digs. Fred treats the sister with something less than respect and puts her to work cleaning the Sanford Arms---are you hanging with us here?---but refuses to eat the ethnic dishes she cooks, explaining that “my doctor has me on a strict diet---no garbage!”

The conflict, if you will, emerges when nephew Roberto (if we remember correctly) enrolls in the L.A. school system. He’s a fifth grader but is told by the school that he must go back to the fourth grade because, according to his teacher, he can’t speak or understand English well enough to “keep up”* with the class. This makes young Roberto angry, and tearful. “I’m not a baby,” he declares, in what sounded to us like perfectly serviceable English.

Then, sometime in the near future---we missed the transition on a return trip to the kitchen---comes word that acting-out Roberto has been suspended from school. Roberto’s mother prevails upon a reluctant Fred---Lamont and Julio apparently are “out”---to accompany her to the school to suss out the situation. There the pair meet with the principal, a dignified African-American gentleman with stentorian voice, who explains that there’s nothing he can do about Roberto’s problem---the teacher is adamant that the boy’s English skills aren’t up to the 5th grade.

Then Fred has a bold idea: “Why don’t you stay after school and help him [with his English]?”

“I can’t do that---I’m the principal!” sez the principal.

“Well,” ripostes Fred G., “how about forgetting about your principal and worrying about his interest?”

The studio audience applauds heartily, and the principal, moved by the junkman’s unassailable and punning logic, agrees: “Yes, I think I will!”

This obviously was back in the day, when a school principal just rolled out the balls and burnished the heavy wooden paddle and didn’t have to fret over standardized test scores. But what really betrayed the datedness of Julio and Sister and Nephew was the fact that a 1970s sit-com created and produced by Norman Lear, the consummate Hollywood liberal of the time, was sermonizing on behalf of pushing Spanish-speaking children to immediately learn English (albeit with the help of special after-hours tutelage from the school principal).

Yes, this was so long ago (we assume the episode was made sometime between 1972 and 1975), back before the Mexican economic dislocations of the late ’70s triggered the massive and sustained illegal immigration to the United States that only recently has shown signs of abating, and back before the perfessers down the corner College of Education misread Thomas Dewey and saddled the public schools of the land with bilingualism (which, as we have noted too many times previously, turned out to be monolingualism, the lingualism being español) and other flavor-of-the-month theories regarding child-centered education (as opposed to education-centered education).

Our viewing of Sanford and Son followed our learning of the news in Saturday’s Houston Chronicle that the Houston school district was for the first time to conduct University Interscholastic League academic competitions in Spanish (and not just for the subject Spanish, we should note). The newspaper explained that this was sort of a UIL-sanctioned experiment that could spread elsewhere in the state. The school district’s organizer, identified as Michael Fain, was quoted as saying, "There is not a single person that has said we should not do this."

Obviously Mr. Fain needs to get out of the house more often.

This struck as a fairly significant story, given the hallowed place of UIL competitions in Texas public education, yet it was written with the typical gee-whilikers, ain’t-this-wonderful approach the Chronicle invariably takes to such stories (it’s FOR THE KIDS, and how could you be against something that’s FOR THE KIDS, even if it’s bad FOR THE KIDS?) The human interest angle comes in the person of a competitor in the Spanish-language creative-writing contest, 7-year-old Dionny Rodriguez, who “came to Houston this year from Mexico, where [she] used to recite poems in Spanish” (which suggests that the youngster may have been getting a better education down in Mexico, recitation being rote memorization, which is roundly condemned down at the College of Education, ’cause, y’know, it could be too hard and boring and whatnot).

She came this year … couldn’t they find somebody who had been in the country longer than a few months? (We’ll pause here to catch our breath and point out what seems to have flown right past all the geniuses and their analyses of last week’s election returns: One reason for the narrowness of victory of the HISD schoolhouse-bonds referendum is a growing backlash, especially among blacks, against the metastasizing cost [new schools, bilingual teachers, summer school, etc. and so on] of educating the children of illegals---mark it and check it out.) What about all the Chinese and Korean and African and Albanian and Bosnian kids (and don't forget the Meshketian Turks!) in the local schools who aren't being served in their respective native tongues like young Dionny and therefore have to get strokin' in English? Wouldn't fairness dictate that they get their own UIL competitions?

But don’t worry. According to the Chronicle, this foray into UIL bilingualism (monolingualism) “doesn't mean football fouls will be called in Spanish anytime soon.”

Football fouls?

Hold on, Elizabeth, I’m comin’! (Grab chest, fall over.)

*Keeping up with the class---what a quaint notion!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Southampton Residents Warn the Rest of Houston: Hands Off Our Ordinance, Plebes

As far as we know no one has even pretended that the now-delayed-for-90-days ordinance aimed at keeping a 23-story high-rise from affronting "affluent" homeowners of the Southampton and Boulevard Oaks neighborhoods is anything but a whimsical maneuver tailored to satisfy one small, localized constituency of the well-off. But must the Southamptonites and Boulevard Oakies be so flagrantly proprietary about it?

We're referring to a comment the Houston Chronicle's Mike Snyder extracted from Chris Amandes, identified as "an attorney who chairs a task force of leaders of the two neighborhoods," who's

worried that a lengthy delay [in city council approval of the ordinance] would prompt efforts to add features to the ordinance that might jeopardize its passage.

"There are lots of opportunities for anybody who has any kind of land-use issue to tie their wagon to this ordinance," Amandes said.
In other words, Away with your wagon and other nettlesome development issues. This is our ordinance.

If nothing else, this controversy has made for an edifying spectacle, in particular the notion of these agitated rich folks rallying to forestall the creatively destructive impulses of market capitalism.

Then there's Mayor White, who must be putting a little extra strut in his step following the 86-percent stamp of approval he received in Tuesday's election. According to Snyder, White said the message he's sending to the developers of the planned high-rise is this: "You'd better stop this thing, because I'm going to stop it unless you stop it."

It's Marshal Kane, with the Southamptonites as his Quaker bride.

Cue the Tex Ritter.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

A Slampo’s Place Exclusive Endorsement: Bill White for Mayor (’Cause He Lays off the Grass)

After a long and careful review of the candidates and the issues while waiting for a bus at the corner of Fondren and Beechnut, the editorial board has voted unanimously to again throw the full heft of Slampo’s Place behind Mayor Bill White in his bid for a third and final term.

That means, of course, the election is all but over, unless one of the other candidates---aren’t there one or two?---would like to send some cash money to us in an envelope (no return address necessary). Fifty ($50) could swing it (having spent our formative years in the "Gret Stet" to the east, we’re not only corrupt but come cheap). Contact us at the email address above, and remember when you leave a message to specify which candidate we are to endorse. Be quick about it.

We, of course, have had our differences with Whi … ah, scratch that. We accidentally hit the “insert editorial writing cliché here” button. Here’s what we meant to say: We agree with many things The Guv’nuh has done, disagree or are puzzled by others, consider his “tax cuts” a silly joke but overall think he’s been a good mayor, better than his immediate predecessor for sure (small, small praise) and probably better than his immediate three or four predecessors (at least). We don’t even hold against him---not too much, anyway---the mess made of our neighborhood for a year and a half by the public works department and the soon-to-go-bankrupt contractor the city council picked for a major water pipe replacement project (now fading fast into pained memory).

We’re occasionally tickled by our brethren and sisteren or whoever-en in the blogosphere who attribute every action or pronouncement of White’s to base political motive in advance of his putative run for governor. (We also have to laugh at the mayor’s protestations that his political future doesn’t factor into his decisions---the muddled truth most likely is somewhere in between.) If White were a calculating Clinton-esque triangulator (which he is) but nothing more, then you’d have to say he’s an inept one. Take the attempted eviction of the mentally retarded from their longtime home near River Oaks: What percentage was there for White in that maneuver? It’s not like a donation or two from a developer, if he even were to get them, is going to get him elected governor. From a political standpoint, it was dumb---which nine out of ten people on the street could have told him, if he had asked---so we can only conclude the mayor truly believed he was pursuing the fiscally responsible course, even if it was politically dumb and (if you please) morally wrong. (As age teaches, there are certain arrangements in the world that, upon close inspection, are that way for a good reason and should remain undisturbed by the improver’s hand.)

So White strikes us as a serious person, with a tendency to list toward self-righteousness and sanctimony (and how). That was brought home to us by something called Living Green that appeared inside the Oct. 25 Houston Chronicle. Living Green is the latest in an apparently endless parade of niche publications the Chronicle is trotting out. Perhaps you’ve seen them: There’s Glop, or Gloop, and Health (can Wealth by far behind, or did it come and go and we missed it?), and Sexy Boxing Latinas (“The Chronicle niche publication for dudes who like to watch hot chicks fight”) and Frenchette (“The Chronicle niche publication for Houstonians who pretend to know something about wine”) and our favorite, Sweat ("The Chronicle niche publication for Houstonians who perspire in large and unsightly amounts”). The Lil’ General (5 years=no Pulitzer=hari-kari … oh, he’s not Japanese) who rouses the troops at 801 Texas recently declared that the niche publication is one of the key fronts on which the Hearst Corp. is battling the mysterious “all comers” (some come fast ... some come real slow) in the war against falling circulation and revenue.

And what’s this got to do with Bill White? Hold on, we’re getting to that. Right now we’re building momentum, kinda like the Dead in the 8th or 9th minute of Tennessee Jed at Hofheinz back in November of ’72.

Anyway, regarding Living Green: We won’t waste much time here pointing out the irony of a newspaper whose existence depends on the clear-cutting of acres of forests and the burning of copious amounts of fossil fuels presuming to offer instruction, or even “tips,” on environmental correctness. We’ll just open up Living Green and note that the first item to offend the sensitive reader is deep reportage on the “green habits” of various celebrities such as Demi Moore and Martha Stewart, which appeared right next to a full-page Gallery Furniture ad for an expensive German mattress made only of "natural materials." (And for this, we guess, the newspaper laid off or fired veteran reporters and editors.)


Deeper into the section is a double-truck feature in which some consigned-to-hell Chronicle minion was forced to ask various local personages---a well-known restaurateur, the head of maintenance at Metro, etc.---to rate Houston’s “greenness” on a scale of 1 to 10. That wasn’t the only thing that was asked of them---apparently each of these experts was asked to be photographed holding a FUCKING PLUG OF GRASS, which you would presume is the logo or symbol or whathaveyou of Living Green. It’s unclear and unspecified whether this was a flat of common St. Augustine, as it appears, or some native grass, or perhaps a slab of wheat grass, the kind that is pressed into the juice we drink only when Councilman Peter Brown is buying shots for the house at Whole Foods. Whatever it is and whatever its visual "point," all the participants are pictured holding a FUCKING PLUG OF GRASS---the pained expression on the restaurateur’s face suggests she’s extending a paper plate of DOG POO---all, that is, except for el alcade. The mayor is pictured wearing a goofy green golf shirt, most likely left over from St. Paddy’s Day, and bizarrely gives Houston an 8 of 10 for greenness (ah, it’s a joke anyway, so why not give the city an 11?), but he IS NOT HOLDING A FUCKING PLUG OF GRASS. Maybe he thought, “I’m not participating in this stupid gimmick that somebody thinks will burnish the bottom line of the Hearst Corp., no matter how many back massages and foot rubs I’ve been given by Rick Casey and the Chronicle editorial board,” or maybe he wasn’t thinking that at all, but whatever the case the FUCKING PLUG OF GRASS ended up still in the picture but well behind the mayor on a window frame.

So, um, as far as we’re concerned he's got that going for him, and he’s deftly denied his Republican opponent in the 2010 gubernatorial race the chance to run a negative ad featuring a picture of Bill White looking like a mope with a wad of grass in hand.