Sunday, December 28, 2008

Good News: Houston Advances to 54th Place from 55th in "Literate Cities" Rankings; Boosters Cite Jump as More Evidence of "World Class" Stature

Yep, you read that right: Houston climbed an entire notch this year in the "Most Literate Cities" rankings issued annually by Central Connecticut State University, that storied academic powerhouse of New Britain, Conn. (women's lacrosse team mascot: the "Slammin' Poochies"). The bad news is that Our Town still hasn't overtaken Riverside, Calif. ("County Seat of Riverside County") and Newark, N.J. ("A Real Fine Place to Carry a Gun") in the ratings.

How'd we pull it off? Hard to say, given that the CCSU researchers base the rankings of 70 cities (with populations of at least 250,000) on an index of six "key indicators" of a burg's literacy. As one of Houston's paragons of literacy, Ken Hoffman, might put it, here's how we stacked up against other major metropolises across the land, from our best to our worst category (for some reason the researchers did not link to their findings in the 6th category, bookstores per capita):
25th in Internet resources

Tied with Fort Worth for 48th in publications

Tied for 52nd with San Diego for newspaper circulation

53rd in education attainment of its citizenry

Tied for No. 68 with Stockton, Ca. in library resources

The rankings were topped by the usual suspects, with Minneapolis (too cold to do anything but read) and Seattle (lots of coffee-sipping goatee-strokers with computers) knotted-up at No. 1, followed by No. 3 Washington D.C. (somebody's gotta read and write all those federal regs), No. 4 St. Paul (doughty "twin city" of No. 1 Minneapolis) and No. 5 San Francisco (figures).

The discerning reader---assuming you've been able to read this far---will note that the above cities are all horribly expensive places to live when compared to Houston ('cause they got unions and land-use regs and workable mass transit and so forth) and, except for D.C., all have negligible populations of illegal Spanish-speaking immigrants.

Also---and we believe S. Palin would second the motion---they're all gay, as the kids say.*

Anyway, so what if we (us Houstonians) aren't big on the readin' and writin' thing. We (me) haven't done any research on this, but we'd wager that Our Town has far and away more Wing Stop locations than any of these fancy-pants cities. Plus: We got the Art Car Parade!

They can rank all day and all the night, but we's No. 1!

*Not "gay" as in homosexual, because of the above cities we believe Houston would be second only to S.F. in both total number of gay men and women and gays per capita, but "gay" as defined by the authoritative Urban Dictionary: "Often used to describe something stupid or unfortunate. Originating from homophobia; quite preferable among many teenage males in order to buff up their 'masculinity.' " Hotcha!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Have a Pimpalicious Holiday Season!

Our state representative will no longer be our state representative in just a few short weeks, but he was thoughtful enough to send us this nice card on his way out the legislative door. We're not sure which "history" he's referring to, though. We're pretty sure it's not the history made (allegedly) at the St. Regis Hotel about a year ago at this time. We think he means the history made on Nov. 4, but we're puzzled as to how exactly he knew we joined in the making of history that day and weren't standing athwart history, ballots being secret and all. Well, no matter. And no matter that we don't see a "Not Printed at Taxpayers' Expense" disclaimer on the card. We're sure it wasn't (printed at taxpayer expense), and it's the thought that counts, right?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Our Holiday Gift Guide, for the Loved One in Your Life In Need of Bailing Out

You know this blog has scraped bottom when we resort to recommending Xmas gifts, but we believe it is our patriotic duty to urge you to spend whatever’s left of your fortune this holiday season, and we’re pretty sure Paul Krugman would agree. John Maynard Keynes probably would agree, too, were he alive in the long run, and were he alive we’d like to think he’d gift us with something nice. Not another frickin’ gift card to a chain outlet, but something that says “us” while providing a mild stimulant* to the economy. Perhaps a high-riding, gas-guzzling American-made motor vehicle, with a large-screen Hi-Def plasma TV bolted to the roof. Or something made by hand. May Kay, as his confreres called him, reportedly was good with his hands.

So what’s in Santa’s bag? For the “word person” on your list you could do worse (much) than Roy Blount Jr.’s Alphabet Juice (“The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, ... With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory"), which, despite its dopey title (great cover, though) is a splendid compilation of many fine words. The book opens with this epigraph, taken from a poignant moment on the Ali G. Show
Ali G: How many words do you know?

Noam Chomsky: Normally, humans, by nature, have tens of thousands of them.

Ali G.: What is some of ’em?
... and builds nicely from there. Blount holds, and we wholeheartedly agree, that the way words roll trippingly off the tongue, or not, is intimately connected to their meanings, and he’s even coined a very sharp one of his own---sonicky---for words that just sound right (sort of like the way Coltrane’s My Favorite Things sounds exactly like Christmas, know what we mean?). Some short sharp shots of Blountian erudition, for your holiday edification:
aight This lackadaisical morpheme, a staple of webchat, is an inspired folk spelling of a popular oral contraction … a more writerly version would be a’right … But that would be too fussy for electronic communication … and in this case less meticulous is more poetic.

Anglicization Sleepy LeBeef, the rockabilly singer (It Ain’t What You Eat It’s How You Chew It) told me once that his hometown, Smackover, Arkansas, is an Anglicization of the French sumac couvert, covered with sumac.**

An example of chutzpah: employing the word itself too lightly around someone who knows Yiddish …

tallywacker This when I was a boy was the term our family doctor used for the penis.*** I don’t know that I have ever seen it in print … Somehow I didn’t want to Google tallywacker … I didn’t want to learn of a folk-rock band called Tallywacker, or a theatrical event called The Tallywacker Monlogues …
You get the idea. Funny---and dare we say, truly learned--- stuff. All the words are alphabetized, so you can peek in at random while taking a break from reading your Gibbon (another recommended author for out time).

Also: Night of the Gun by David Carr: Ordinarily we wouldn’t get with in page-turning distance of one of these “how I got sober/straight” memoirs, but Carr, who covers the media and show biz for the New York Times, is an engaging egomaniac who’s wise to his own BS and checks himself at every turn. It helps that he’s an adept word-wanker.

The Forever War by Dexter Filkins: If you’re familiar with Filkins’ extraordinary dispatches from Iraq for the Times, this book needs no recommendation. If not, get it and read it, if only as a reminder that we’re still at war.

World Made by Hand by James Howard Kunstler: The peak-oil popularizer’s vision of our oil-less future. A humble book which, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, depicts a post-apocalyptic day in which humanity struggles to reassert itself and there’s such a thing as “good guys” and “bad guys.” This would remind us of some obscure, forgotten science-fiction classic of the ’20s or ’30s, if we’d ever actually read such a book.

… and Richard Price’s Lush Life is a fine piece of reportorial fiction.

But what about that elderly music lover on your list, locked snugly in the unyielding grip of his faded youth? Our friend Deacon Blue tipped us to Never Ever Land (now that’s a title!), a 3-CD compilation of late ’60s musical acts from Houston’s International Artists label. We’ll let the Deacon handle the wordsmithing for a moment, so we might rest:
Any CD set that includes Roky doing Slip Inside and Lightnin' doing Mini Skirt, along with Bubble Puppy and the Shayds may be worth springing for.
Yes, it may be (we’re hedging our recommendation, ’cause like Deacon Blue we haven’t heard it, but it sure sounds good). Unlike the Deacon, who was a young shaver hereabouts when these songs were being strummed in Sharpstown garages, at teen clubs and on KNUZ (or wherever), we were not present for this musical flowering, but from this far distance it seems to us that there was something uniquely off-center happening back then in off-the-beaten-path Houston. We’re especially interested in finding out more about an entity that recorded under the handle The Disciples of Shaftesbury (this was way back before you could actually get away with naming your band Tallywacker), who avowed that My Cup is Full, and someone or ones who called him/her/themselves Beauregarde and unashamedly declared that Mama Taught Me How To Jellyroll (an act of pedagogy that we believe is illegal in Texas and most other states), then disappeared into the foggy mists of time. We need some background, and we’re taking the liberty of assigning the task of assembling it to Chronicle blogger Rick Campbell.

That’s all we got. Felicidades, and may your Xmas stocking be filled with jellyroll, but not the kind that leaves you with an uncomfortable burning sensation.

*Mild stimulants being the best kind, as they don't leave you bug-eyed or coat your lips with a thick gloss of spittle.

**We actually knew this but had never seen the translation coupled in the same sentence with "Sleepy LeBeef."

***This must be a Southernism, as we referred to our bad thing by the same term, at least until we were 6 or 7 years old.

Ghosts of Christmas Past: Our suitably mawkish tribute to Charles Brown's Please Come Home for Christmas and other songs that made Christmas great.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

"From the Stink of the Diddie to the Stench of the Shroud, There is Always Something ..."

War broke out between the states
And they joined up with Quantrill.
And it was over in Clay County
That Frank and Jesse finally learned to kill.
-- Warren Zevon,
Frank and Jesse James
A parlor-game question arising from the highly entertaining (and much-needed!) Blagojevich diversion is whether Illinois is the most corrupt state in the union. This would seem to lead to a subjective judgment that in the end would escape empirical verification, yet Slate’s Jacob Weisberg gave it a whack recently by comparing Blagojevich’s homestate with Louisiana, which, as Weisberg notes, has a long history of “flamboyant and shameless” political corruption. Weisberg cites statistics compiled by Corporate Crime Reporter showing Louisiana led the nation from 1997-2006 with 326 federal corruption convictions, but suggests Blagojevich-era Illinois has “gone carnival” (nice phrase!) and is on the verge of snatching the crown.

We know nothing of Illinois---we’ve visited there a few times and believe it to be somewhere well north of Arkansas---but we do possess a small bit of knowledge of the political folkways of Texas’ neighbor to the east. Although a Texan by birth and bent of mind, we spent our formative years, and some deformative ones, across the Sabine in the Hub City. Growing up in the middle-class suburbs there did not necessarily gift us with any insight into the political workings of the state, although we took an early interest in government and can still do a fairly exact impersonation of the late Warren J. “Puggy” Moity. (“Ol’ Puggy ain’t gonna lie to ya,” we often heard the antic private dick-cum-scandal sheet publisher intone during the 30-minute rants he would air on local TV stations on Saturday afternoons, during which he’d cut loose with all manner of libel and invective against state and local politicians [some of it non-judgment proof].) No, everything we know about Louisiana politics---and lots that we know about human nature---we learned at our first reporting job, on the Atakapalousa Tribune,* in Atakapalousa* ("300 bars and One Church," as the saying went), the parish seat of St. Erastus Parish.* It was one of the best educational experiences we’ve ever had, and although our two years there seemed agonizingly long at the time, looking back we wish we had been more attentive and in the moment, rather than wasting our time plotting how we were going to get to the New York Times, or at least the Shreveport Journal (neither of which, alas, were takers).

St. Erastus, which sits less than a half-hour drive to the north of the Hub City but was several decades removed in socioeconomic development, was generally believed to be the second most corrupt parish in Louisiana, after Jefferson Parish outside of New Orleans, which was controlled by “Mob boss Carlos Marcello.” (We believe that was his full name.) Mob Boss Marcello’s tentacles were said to stretch far westward to St. Erastus, primarily through some undocumented and unspecified interest in the two whorehouses---what a quaint term!---that operated openly, flagrantly, in the parish.** One was near the parish line to the south, out on the main highway and up the road from the thoroughbred track outside the Hub City (the track has since moved to Atakapalousa, after Hub City voters refused to allow casino gambling on the premises); the other, called “The Spot,” was deep in the woods near the levee along the Atachamattamapa,* supposedly the swiftest-flowing river in the U.S. (They had a big “rock festival” on its banks in ’70 or ’71 and six or so naked hippies drowned after jumping in for a swim---true story.) We had seen no actual proof Marcello had a hand in these or other sporting endeavors in the locality, but back then we believed that he did and we believe it to this day. (We never patronized either establishment, because at the time we wouldn’t think of actually paying for it, and besides, we were only pulling down $195 a week.***)

We arrived in Atakapalousa with a freshly obtained college degree, some unremarkable clips from our college paper, and as stupid as a telephone pole. Our second or third week at the paper the editor told us to call the head of the Chamber of Commerce, the elder of a local German-Jewish merchant family, who had a tip for us: The newly sworn-in mayor and his father were set to make $10,000 (if we remember correctly) for handling the legal work on a big bond issue the city council had just approved. (At the time $10,000 would have seemed like a lot of money to us, so it might have been more.) We remember sitting with the kindly old city comptroller, an honest but wary wage-earner with a hangdog look, requesting he supply us with the pertinent documents and having him clarify for us just exactly how a “municipal bond issue” worked. It turned out that while the mayor had pushed for the debt issue he had abstained from voting on it, thus absolving himself of any direct conflict under the law as it was then written.

The mayor was just a little older than us---a big, friendly, boyish guy who had made his name as quarterback on the Tulane squad that was the first to beat LSU since’48, something like that. Someone---probably the Chamber of Commerce guy, who must have had a long-standing beef with the mayor’s big-shot lawyer father---requested that the D.A. investigate after our story appeared. But the D.A., as the mayor told us with a noticeable sheepishness, was his “godfather,” so the matter was somehow kicked to the attorney general---a good friend or distant blood relation of the mayor’s father, according to the mayor (who, again, related this circumstance with matter-of-fact embarrassment). Nothing came of it, of course, not that we figured it would, and the mayor (now a big-time plaintiff’s attorney) remained friendly and became a decent source for us. But the incident did leave us with a greater appreciation of Coppola’s Godfathers I and II, particularly Michael’s warning to Fredo to never go against the family, and it gave us a heads-up to the murk we’d be blindly wading into for the next couple of years.

There was always something similar afoot, and a sizable cast of raffish characters, a real-life Runyonesque crew with country Cajun accents. It wasn’t like we were a crack investigative reporter, although we could be industrious when aroused; the stuff just fell in our hands and those of other reporters, like overripe fruit. It helped that there was no competition---the Tribune (long since swallowed into the Gannett maw) had the place to itself---and that our editor was a decent guy with solid news instincts. He was the kind of crusty old-school journalist who chain-smoked his way through his second bout of cancer (we were surprised to learn a few years ago that he was still among the living) and was generally fearless in pursuing stories, a stance that’s not easy to maintain in an incestuous (often literally) small town. (He lost his job, of course, before we vacated the premises, and the chain owner replaced him with a pious, pud-faced Baptist from Mississippi who began running a “Bible verse of the day” on the front page.)

Yes, there was corruption a’plenty: Most hilariously, the boat ramp that the police jury (county commission) president had quietly built with public funds on private property for a friendly constituent---an “ol’ boy,” as the official explained to us, who had some disability that prevented him getting over to the public ramp down the road (perhaps this was just an early example of privatization). The story prompted a number of complaints from other boat owners wondering where their taxpayer-funded boat ramps were, and the police jury president, a jowly, humorless Boss Hogg type, decided not to seek re-election.

More seriously, there was as the long-running story that we worked on with our good pal Mike of the $25,000 bribe that Clyde Vidrine, an aide to Gov. Edwin Edwards during his first term, claimed had been given to Edwards (in cash, in a brown paper bag, of course) to clear the way for the permitting of a toxic waste dump in the middle of the woods in the parish directly to the north of St. Erastus. A year or so earlier Vidrine had written and published Just Takin’ Orders: A Southern Governor's Watergate, a book of much statewide notoriety in which he alleged numerous finely detailed instances of felonious behavior in the Edwards administration. The bribe had been touched on briefly by Bill Lynch, an investigative reporter for the New Orleans States-Item (RIP), who suggested there was a lot more to the story and we should pursue it. Mike had stumbled into the Vidrine connection when he been pulling string on the mysterious dump site after it appeared on the EPA’s first Superfund clean-up list---no one locally, not even the residents of a nearby trailer park, knew of its existence. Out of the blue he got a call from Vidrine, who had returned to his nearby hometown after his banishment from Baton Rouge. “You kind of stepping into my pasture there,” Vidrine told Mike. We eventually met up with Vidrine---framed on the cinder-block walls of his drafty "office" were the same pictures that appeared in his book of him with Myron Cohen and Ann-Margaret---and later traveled to Baton Rouge to interview Edwards. We cannot get our hands on the clips, but if memory serves Edwards never directly denied that money exchanged hands for the permit but dismissed the matter with his usual line of charming BS, claiming that if there was a bag of money left in his office “Clyde” had taken it and blown it all on booze and whores. We do remember being somewhat underdressed for the interview, appearing in the gubernatorial office in our skeevy leather jacket and black Chuck Taylor high-tops. The governor asked where we’d acquired our footwear. Many years later his charm would wear thin and his wit would not save him.

Near the end of our apprenticeship in St. Erastus we got a call from somebody at the U.S. Attorney’s office, which was all the way up in Shreveport, a good five-hours drive away before the completion of the interstate, telling us to request File No. so-and-so and that it might make a good story. It turned out the Justice Department had been quietly investigating a local school trustee for a while and was about to strike a plea bargain with the man. It would be the first time the feds had prosecuted a vote-buying case under the Voting Rights Act. The infraction involved the purchase of the ballots of 60 or so black voters in Atakapalousa, who (memory fails us here) had been given some kind of gratuity---maybe $5 or $10---for their help in ensuring the white board member was elected. The trustee’s brother was the superintendent of schools, and their family had a wholesale and retail gasoline business that contracted with the school district and other local governments. The trustee avoided jail time but had to resign his seat, a grievous inconvenience for the family. We had not initiated the investigation, just written about it at length---and pretty much the way the assistant U.S. Attorney told it----but the episode seriously soured our relation with then ex-trustee, who thereafter would greet us only with an icy “Hey … babe …” that we found both funny and faintly menacing. (The last time we saw the old boy he was hosting a show on the local cable access channel---who says there’s no second acts in American life?)

A couple days after the court case concluded we were walking in front of the courthouse when we ran into one of the state district judges, a crotchety, spiteful old asshole whose father had been a judge, grandfather had been a judge, etc. (and whose extended family was the one supposedly maligned by Huey Long for allegedly having “black blood,” a remark which by legend if not fact led to Long’s assassination by a family in-law). The judge said he had read our stories, chucked a bit, then turned contemplative: “Y’know, in the old days we’d just give the niggers a chit before they went to vote---like a, a … wooden chit,” he recalled, almost wistfully, “and later we’d let ’em re-deem it for a glass of whiskey.” Such is democracy.

There were many other stories---some too complicated to explain here, some the particulars too lost to memory for quick-and-dirty retrieval---but one of the most telling involved the sports editor at the Tribune. On one Super Sunday the state police---or maybe it was the feds---raided a downtown bar that had made what seemed to us to be exceptionally large book on the game. From under the glass on the bar the authorities confiscated a check for $1,000 made out by the sports editor to the bookmaking barkeep.

The sports editor was a lightly closeted gay guy---sort of mean-prissy, overly dramatic, just an obviously full-on gay dude, but damned for near-eternity to be sports editor of a small newspaper in a nowhere town in the late 1970s (which in retrospect fills us with wonder and a sort of admiration that he managed to pull it off, at least adequately---he got the scores right---in that environment). He was the queen of his small fiefdom and something of a load. Late at night, when the newsroom was clear of all but the sportswriters and yours truly and our hard-working pal Mike, the sports editor had a bad habit of loudly deploying the word “nigger” when grousing about some high school athlete or another. This would send Mike, who was and is an upright dude, around the bend and right up into the sports editor’s face. The sports editor would respond with a torrent of vituperative bitchiness. All this caused us to look with some disfavor on the boy.

When it came time for the bookie’s trial, the sports editor was called to testify about the forever-uncashed check he had written. For the next day’s paper, down in the story but not too far down, we wrote the following paragraph: “R---r B----t, who identified himself as the sports editor of the Atakapalousa Tribune, testified about a $1,000 check …” Etc. We wrote it that way for a laugh, figuring our editor would fix it for us, but as with too much off the under-deadline crap we churned out each day (5, maybe 6 stories, all written between 8 a.m. and the 11:30 a.m. deadline and baked in Camel filters and black coffee), it sailed right on to the front page, unmolested. Now we realize that our editor, who also did not care for the sports guy, probably left it that way intentionally.

That afternoon the sports editor stormed into the office, slammed down a stack of fresh papers on his desk and bellowed, at us and everyone else in earshot, “Why the fuck did you put in that I ‘identified myself as the sports editor’ …?”

We had no ready answer other than the truth: “Well, you did … I mean the prosecutor asked you to identify yourself, and that’s what you said,” we replied. “And y’know …,” we added, unconsciously articulating the secret motto of the true Louisianan, “I just couldn’t help myself.”

*To cover all behinds, mostly ours, we have changed the locale names just a bit here.

**The district attorney, a Georgetown Law grad who favored gaudy checkered sports jackets, once told us that the whorehouses were allowed to operate "because that's what the people want." This was during the same surreal conversation when he informed us, without elaborating, that his wife was Sicilian.

***Although this is irrelevant to our story, we did patronize on an evening or two a topless bar in the vicinity of the racetrack called The Galloping Jugs. We just wanted to record that name for posterity.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Things We Never Knew About ... Poo

From a review by Dwight Garner in Friday’s New York Times of British journalist Rose George’s The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters:
Ms. George’s book brims with strange, telling details: The average human spends three years of his or her life going to the toilet; the poet W. H. Auden reportedly allowed his guests one sheet of toilet paper because he thought more was wasteful (the average American uses 57 sheets a day); feces in the street is thought to be the reason for the sudden popularity, in the 17th century, of high heels; one recent survey indicated that 850,000 cellphones a year are inadvertently flushed down British toilets. The stinkiest compound in feces (skatole) has been isolated and weaponized by a retired Navy commander.
George’s book is “lively in other ways,” Garner writes (We love the following, as in l-u-v LUV):
It is hard not to warm to a writer who can toss off an observation like this one: “I like engineers. They build things that are useful and sometimes beautiful — a brick sewer, a suspension bridge — and take little credit. They do not wear black and designer glasses like architects. They do not crow.”
According to Garner, The Big Necessity also offers important practical advice:
For anyone who is desperate and unable to find a toilet, Ms. George includes an unusual bit of advice, a therapy devised by Park Jae Woo, a Korean scientist. “It served me well,” she writes, “during ensuing months of research in toilet-deficient places.” I have not tried this, but here goes: “Should the urge to defecate strike, take a pen, pencil, or blunt object and trace a line, deeply and with pressure, in a clockwise direction on the left palm or counterclockwise on the right. The urge, assures Dr. Park, ‘will immediately cease.’ ”
And there’s the suggestion that Americans’ longtime love affair with asswipe is just another example of our Bush-ian hubris:
Compared with those in most of the rest of the world, sanitary conditions in America are exemplary. We are, most of us, among the lucky few. But there is one other aspect of Ms. George’s book that might make Americans rethink their toilet habits. It arrives during her blunt discussion of what best might be called the “paper versus water” debate.

In Japan, where toilets are amazingly advanced — most of even the most basic have heated seats and built-in bidet systems for front and rear — the American idea of cleaning one’s backside with dry paper is seen as quaint at best and disgusting at worst. As Ms. George observes: “Using paper to cleanse the anus makes as much sense, hygienically, as rubbing your body with dry tissue and imagining it removes dirt.”
Garner concludes:
It’s a busy, filthy, complicated world to which Ms. George has turned her estimable attentions. She is convincing when she writes, “to be uninterested in the public toilet” — or the private one, for that matter — “is to be uninterested in life.”
Right-o. This indeed is an important and endlessly fascinating topic, and anyone who says otherwise is a lyin’ sack of merde!

Also: An interesting interview with George wherein she discusses the superiority of the Japanese toilet, cites some disquieting figures on the dumping of raw sewage into our rivers, deplores the disappearance of the public toilet in major U.S. cities and offers the apparently educated opinion that “squatting” is much more efficient than “sitting” for thorough evacuation.

And: George’s blog

And: The Times is offering the first chapter of George’s book, in case Garner missed any of the juicy bits.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Calling It In

We were intrigued by the headline Some Houstonians 'calling in gay' on page B4 of Wednesday's Houston Chronicle and thus were moved to wade into the story beneath it, which reported that "gay men and women in Houston and across the country" would be taking part in a "Day Without a Gay" economic boycott in protest of California voters' recent rejection of gay marriage.

We began to peruse the story with a detached, clinical interest in finding out just how many "some Houstonians" might be, and we learned right off that Jerry Simoneaux, a lawyer, "is taking off today"* along with the 10 other people at his law firm (not all of whom, we presume, are gay). So Mr. Simoneaux himself technically was not "calling in gay," nor were the 10 employees who most certainly were encouraged by their boss to take the day off.

The story then moved on to Eric Weitzel, who was "already scheduled to be off from his retail job, but ... plans to call in anyway. "** So neither was Mr. Weitzel really "calling in gay." (There's no better way to demonstrate the courage of your convictions than by not showing up at your workplace on your day off.)

We were well down in the story and so far the Houston Chronicle had not found one living, breathing soul who planned to chomp down on the bullet and "call in gay." But we kept reading (we're that way).

Up next was Kris Banks, president of the Houston Stonewall Young Democrats, who proclaimed that California voters had "spit in the face" of gays but was not quoted as to whether he would be participating in the boycott by calling in ... etc.

At this point, the running total of "some Houstonians" was holding steady at ZERO.

There was a glimmer on the horizon, though: the Chronicle related that there was a "Day Without a Gay" Facebook site with nearly 200 members in Houston, about 80 of whom were saying "they might participate in today's boycott," but nothing confirmed, y'know (emphasis added).

Next up was "local activist" Meghan Baker. Our pulse quickened as we thought, "Perhaps Ms. Baker is the one who'll call in gay." But, no, Ms. Baker "isn't scheduled to work tomorrow," the Chronicle reported (with a straight face, which at this point would be very hard for a reader to keep) and like Messers. Simnoneaux and Weitzel planned to do some volunteer work in lieu of punching the clock. But this was a highly suspicious formulation: "Tomorrow" as used in the story meant Thursday, but according to the rest of the story the boycott was "today," meaning Wednesday and, uh ... whatever the case, we can safely assume that Ms. Baker did not call in gay.

Only five paragraphs remaining, and still no actual confirmation/corroboration of some Houstonians---or any Houstonian---calling in gay. But here came non-gay Peyton Davis, "proud daughter of a gay man" ... "who wants to call in today but can't."

Oh. See, she's an "hourly employee at a local real estate firm and can't afford to lose the income."

Story over. Grand total of Houstonians who planned to call in gay (planned to, never mind their actual doing it): zero, zilch, nada. Perhaps this story would have been more accurately headlined "Gay boycott fizzles in Houston" or, even more accurately if somewhat prosaically: "Gays all over Houston to show up for work Wednesday."

For the record we'll note that we do not oppose gay marriage, not at all ("No skin off my nose," as our daddy used to say), although this appears to be a minority opinion at this time in the United States. What we are against is this contorted, hackneyed, bending-of-reality brand of press-release journalism.

(So long, daily newspapers! Nice knowin' ya!)

*It strikes as as a good idea for all lawyers, gay or not, to close up shop for one, three or maybe five days each week.

*We imagine the following dialog between Mr. Weitzel and his employer:
Mr. Weitzel: "Hello, this is Eric---I'm gay."
Boss: "We know, Eric---enjoy your day off!"

Monday, December 08, 2008

Proper Nouns

The other day our wife was showing us a list of kids from her school who'd received scholarships, or grants---some kind of monetary reward---from the Dell Foundation, or maybe the Gates Foundation (we were not fully present in the conversational moment, alas). She proudly singled out one recipient, a Hispanic lad whose Christian name---'scuse us, his given name---was the stoutly Germanic Gessner (the 13,286th most popular first name in the U.S., just ahead of Chikezie, according to this authoritative Web site). Gessner was headed to or already up at A&M and would be using his windfall to buy an Apple laptop.

That was all well and good but we're the scholarly type and had pressing questions: "So was he named after the street?* Does he have siblings named 'Fondren' and 'Wilcrest' and so forth?"

"I dunno," said she, "I never asked him."

Just a few days earlier, however, she had voluntarily related her ferreting out of the story behind the handle of another unusually named student. This one was christened DeNiro and upon inquiry it turned out that his mother or grandmother or aunt or whoever was in charge of naming him was from Brooklyn or the Bronx and wanted the boy to walk the semi-mean streets of Houston equipped with the name of the film actor most identified with New York City.

It probably goes without saying that this DeNiro is African American. Black folks are taking all the good names---regardless of race!

*To our readers in France: This is a long north-south thoroughfare in southwest Houston that is sort of like the Champs-Elysées, if the Champs-Elysées were lined with block after block of apartment complexes and dowdy commercial "strip" centers.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Two-Egg Man

As a non-card carrying member of the Orwell cult (a loose-knit, lower-case affiliation whose numbers include everyone from Thomas Pynchon down to, we're proud to say, our 19 year old), we were excited---interested is probably a better word---when an associate informed us last summer that the Orwell Prize Web site was to begin running entries from the great man's personal diary, each one posted online 70 years to the day after he first committed it to the long-outdated medium of paper. Since then we have peeked in occasionally at the Orwell Diaries to see what the old boy was up to back in 19-and-38, and we can report that his daily not-for-publication jottings fully reveal him to be the proto-hippie/survivalist/localist (who semi-famously despised proto-hippies) we had always pegged him for. They also confirm what is evident from even a cursory scan of The Road to Wigan Pier: that Orwell, the author who wrestled with the Big Issues of the 20th Century with greater honesty and equanimity than any of his English-speaking contemporaries, had more than a touch of the accountant in him.

At present the diaries find him in Morocco, where he went to recuperate after being shot in the throat while lighting a cigarette during the Spanish Civil War, and there he seems to be consumed with the minutiae of nature, machinery and social and agricultural custom. He records in detail, and diagrams, the local farmers' method of irrigation. He estimates the price of wheat he has purchased in "English dollars." The entry for Nov. 14, 1938 (or "14.11.38") reads, in its entirety, "Planted out nasturtiums." The previous day he reported seeing a "dead dog by the roadside. I am afraid the same one that came asking for food a few days back ... "

But what Orwell really found worthy of recording was the output of the hen, or hens, on the farm outside of Marrakesh where he was billeted. His Dec. 1 entry read:
Two eggs.
The Nov. 30 entry read:
Two eggs.
On Nov. 29:
One egg.
Nov. 28:
Two eggs.
Nov. 27:
One egg.
Nov. 25:
Two eggs.

As you might imagine, this dedicated daily accounting of egg production (while storm clouds massed over Europe, as we think we heard on a PBS documentary) has occasioned great hilarity among online commentators, whose postings are laced with the kind of late-modern snarkiness (some are too damn funny) we'd like to think Orwell would eschew, were he alive today and forced to take his smoke breaks on the sidewalk outside an office building.

Of course, these days Orwell probably would be diagnosed as an obsessive-compulsive depressive and coaxed into a regimen of medication and daily exercise after consulting with his primary care physician. But his diary entries---while far from scintillating reading---show a man who while publicly confronting imperialism, totalitarianism and the rampant phoniness of the Modern World remained privately engaged with the everyday, the ordinary, the basic. A remarkably sane man, in other words.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

It’s All Over, You Can Come Out Now

The 2008 Hurricane Season officially came to an end on Sunday, yet we at Slampo’s Place won’t be letting down our guard. We know that as soon as we do one of these bitches is gonna come together overnight in the Gulf, storm ashore under the wire and try to steal us, as the young folks say.*

We heard on the radio that Atlantic storms were responsible for an estimated $54 billion in damages during the just-past season. The magnitude of that figure can best be grasped in Bailout Nation by noting that it’s just about $10 billion more---give or take a hundred million or so---than the current accumulated taxpayer investment in Citigroup. Still, the dollar-measured damage fell far short of that for 2005, the record-setting year of Katrina and Rita.

For us, though, this was a record-setting season, with our Ike-related expenses stretching toward or into quadruple digits (we’ve refused to do an actually tally, as we’re afraid the result might send us into a black rage that we could only resolve by screaming at our kids, or the dog). We sought no reimbursement from our insurer, being either too stupid or too honest to finagle it.

And our own personal recovery is not yet complete: The hole where our majestic oak** was once rooted is now covered by a viscous mound of a topsoil-and-sand mix. Having ordered a half-yard or so too much, we have filled about every low spot in the neighborhood (if you’d like some, e-mail us), but the small hill persists and by next spring may be covered with St. Augustine and crowned by a small flag. The “long fence” on the north side of our backyard, which put up a stiff fight but was eventually flattened by Ike, has been re-erected for many weeks with attractive, fresh-smelling cedar pickets and posts. That was thanks to our strapping 20-something newlywed neighbor, who had the assistance of similarly aged friends with beer, a cement mixer and a nail gun (the only labor required of us came in the writing of two checks to cover half the costs of materials---a bargain, we’d say). To the west, however, we and our Social Security-eligible next-door-neighbor have thus far managed to raise only a frame. The pickets, which we salvaged from the toppled structure (it did not fight the good fight but gave it up like Roberto Duran to Sugar Ray Leonard), sit in stacks, awaiting our attention. This inaction is not due to laziness (or so we tell our self), but to an inability to coordinate our schedule with our next-door-neighbor’s---that is, to find a time when we are available and he is sober.

We’re actually in no hurry and may hold off another few weeks, or months, to make sure the threat has indeed passed and we won’t have to be putting the SOB up again, at least until next September.

*Pardon the crudity of our language, but we’ve been brushing up on “street” lingo in preparation for our lucrative new gig as consultant on a makeover of the Houston Chronicle’s ailing YO! page.

**"Majestic," in retrospect.

Friday, November 21, 2008

An Analog Kind of Town, Now and Forever

Earlier this week Chronicle business writer Brad Hem apprised us of a revealing statistic regarding the true essence of Our Town in a story about the rapidly approaching government-mandated switch from analog to digital TV signals:
A Nielsen survey last month found nearly 16 percent of Houston households are not ready for the digital television conversion, giving the area the dubious distinction of being the least-prepared in the country with an analog-only rate that’s more than double the national average. Nearly one in four Houstonians gets a TV signal free over the air, which means a lot of people here need to take action before the change.
Further investigation into these Nielson rankings suggests that the large number of Spanish-language TV watchers here may account for Houston's poor showing in the digital-ready sweepstakes (Dallasites are only a wee bit better "prepared" for the switcheroo, but the Spanish-language factor can't explain Milwaukee's lack of preparedness ... can it?).

We'd like to think this survey points to something winning about Houston: that it's still a whiskey-and-trombone town full of wary traditionalists who, whatever their dominant tongue, get along fine with a morning dose of Indio Apache or a bracing evening shot of Matlock on Channel 55 and would rather go without television than bow to a bureaucrat's whim and have their routines interrupted by somebody's idea of "progress." More than likely, though, these late adapters just haven't heard about the change or haven't been able to come up with the scratch for their share of the government-subsidized converter doo-hickey.

Whatever the case, we're afraid that our local tastemakers will see this "dubious distinction" as more evidence of our utter lack of World Class-ness and another obstacle in their efforts to remake the place as a Floridian destination for those goatee-stroking "creative class" types with the uncanny alchemical ability to conjure capital from the digital ether.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

"Floating in a Most Peculiar Way ... "

Just for the hell of it, the other day we imagined that because of too much of whatever we had fallen into a deep coma back in, say, 1978, and had recently awakened, not so tanned but well rested, to find that not only had the United States elected a black man---OK, a half-black man---to the presidency but that most of the once-luxuriant hair on top of our noggin had disappeared and what remained on the sides had turned a ghastly shade of brownish grey (Whoa! How'd that happen?) We figured, though, that we'd be able to incorporate these developments into our new waking reality without much trouble. We could even handle the news that the universe is actually expanding at an accelerated rate because of something called dark energy. But other developments ... well, we probably couldn't get our mind all the way around them, and we'd wind up thinking we'd really missed something:

1. The big three automakers---manufacturers of the Fords our parents drove throughout the 1950s before "moving up" to Chevrolets in the '60s and '70s and finally arriving at the Oldsmobiles of the '80s and '90s---are on the verge of collapse!

2. Al Franken, whom we last saw as a comedian on Saturday Night Live, has an outside shot of being elected to the U.S. Senate in a bitterly contested Minnesota election. Stranger yet, Austrian muscleman Arnold Schwarzeneggar is not only the governor of the nation's most populous state but is supposedly being seriously considered for a post in the half-black president's Cabinet.

3. Strangest of all, that twee song of David Bowie's from the early '70s, Space Oddity, which we always assumed was about, y'know, trippin' (in the dated sense of the term), is being used in a commercial for a Ford Motor Co. automotive product called a Lincoln MKS (as sung, apparently, by that kinda-creepy, sorta-attractive Cat Power chick).

We always figured we'd like to drop acid one more time* before we call it a day, maybe after we're firmly secured in the federally chartered Old Folks Compound in Navasota (projected grand opening: 2022), but we're thinking now that with things proceeding as they are, why bother?

*But only for medical science, of course, and under a doctor's supervision.

Friday, November 14, 2008

That Wheezing, Groaning, Sputtering Sound

Most days we take no satisfaction in the steady rat-a-tat-tat of bad news regarding daily newspapers. After all, this sorry old world would be a much poorer place without them---and a far richer place if each large- and medium-sized American city had four or five (or 10 or 12!) competing daily papers, rather than one doddering, sclerotic and (above all and for the most part) BORING monopoly product.

Then there is the every-so-often day when we believe the world will mosey along just fine without the daily newspaper, and that the daily newspaper, although falling victim to many factors far beyond its control, may be getting just what it deserves. Today was one of those days, when we pulled our local daily from its prophylactic and discovered that El Chronicle de Houston had devoted well more than HALF of its front page to the hometown-hosted Latin Garmmys* (and chronicled this momentous event, it probably goes without saying, in typical tedium-inducing fashion). If you don't believe the previous hard-to-believe sentence, get out your ruler and take measure of the travesty.

This got us to thinking: How long before America’s daily newspapers begin trying to elbow their way into the lengthening bailout queue? How long

*By the way: Apparently the Site Selection Committee for the Latin Grammys, or whoever picked Houston, was unperturbed by those giant inflatable balloon animals that had our local scenic preservationists and nothing-better-to-do City Council up in arms. In fact, we’d bet those eye-catchers were a selling point.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Right to Be Stupid, Denied

Wall Street's still in the tank, the automakers---and everyone else, apparently---are whining for a bailout, and, closer to home, UTMB is laying off almost 4,000 workers. But never let it be said that the Houston City Council is unable to keep itself occupied in these trying times, as demonstrated by Wednesday's vote banning those giant inflatable balloon creatures that waft so delicately over car lots and some of our town's other less aesthetically pleasing commercial establishments.

Our feelings on this subject were best summed up by our president-elect when called upon to address the nagging issue of the droopy britches sported by some of today's woefully out-of-fashion youth:

"I think people passing a law against people wearing sagging pants is a waste of time. We should be focused on creating jobs, improving our schools, health care, dealing with the war in Iraq, and anybody, any public official, that is worrying about sagging pants probably needs to spend some time focusing on real problems out there."

"Having said that," he added, "brothers should pull up their pants. You are walking by your mother, your grandmother, your underwear is showing. What's wrong with that? Come on. There are some issues that we face, that you don't have to pass a law, but that doesn't mean folks can't have some sense and some respect for other people and, you know, some people might not want to see your underwear---I'm one of them."

In other words, we'd rather not have to look at your dirty drawers, young sir, but the last thing the world needs is an ordinance legislating that you hike up your pants. And while we'd rather not be distracted by your big, fug-ugly pink gorilla, Mr. Car Lot Owner (we'd rather, in fact, wing it with a pellet gun as we speed past on our way to nowhere in particular), we don't believe this is a societal failing deserving of government action.

This, after all, is Houston, a city with a long, proud history of garish commercial signage. What cruel fate might have befallen the landmark Holder's Pest Control roach in today's "Let's Turn Houston into Portland"* climate?

The council can ban all the displeasing public displays it wants, but we're afraid it can never rectify the underlying problem. Consider this: Bob Wright, owner of an establishment called Party Boy at I-10 and Studement, told the council his business increased by 20 to 30 percent whenever he hoisted one of those balloons (it was unclear whether he meant foot traffic or actual revenue). No matter how hard it tries, the Houston City Council won't be able to legislate stupidity out of existence.

*Not that there's anything particularly wrong with Portland.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Cabinetry 101: Ripeness is All

The Houston Chronicle editorial page, in another majestic display of noblesse, on Sunday offered our president-elect its very own list of recommendations for his Cabinet appointments (we understand that the Obama transition team was in such lathered anticipation that it dispatched a factotum to the newspaper’s loading dock on Saturday to snag an early edition). Included on the list, of course, was nuestro alcalde for energy secretary (although in this post-election interview with an Austin TV station the mayor suggests he's already been asked and said no thanks).

Setting aside for the moment what would be good for the nation, let’s examine this possibility in light of what would be good for Bill White.

Given Obama’s promised attention to energy policy, we suppose such an appointment would be fast-paced and exciting and maybe just the tonic for a guy who legendarily* wrote energy deregulation legislation when he was a 19-year-old congressional intern,** or whatever the story holds. On the other hand, he’d probably have to forgo his last term-limited year as mayor, thus relinquishing an opportunity to really nail down a mayoral legacy (such as can be put together in six years) and to tack more to the center-right, which he’ll have to do to win statewide elective office (no more rushing out of City Hall to greet those Mexican flag-waving truants at the conclusion of their pro-amnesty marches). And being Obama’s energy secretary would come with the potential of seriously messing up White’s chances of ascending to statewide office, depending on how the incoming president treats the Oil Biz (a fact, not a judgment). We suspect that White’s ambition stretches beyond the statehouse or the Capitol, but to get to that place he’s going to have to be a governor or a senator. Outside of Bill Richardson, what other former U.S. energy secretary has won a major elective office? (Quick: Name another ex-energy secretary of recent vintage.) Plus, despite his vaunted wonkishness, White looks as if he actually enjoys politicking---and he’s good at it!

But back to the other hand: A cursory glance at the county-by-county results in the presidential election just confirms whatever everybody knows: that Texas is a decidedly red state once you drive beyond the Thai restaurants and Whole Foods stores or leave the counties that are in line to be annexed by Mexico (under the Reparations Act of 2035, part of that year's comprehensive immigration legislation signed into law by President Jenna Bush). And check the margins McCain ran up in the counties just outside of Houston: 76-23 (Montgomery), 63-36 (Brazoria), 71-27 (Liberty), etc. and so on. Whew. They say McCain wasn’t even that popular among the Bible thumpers! (On top of all this, White or any other Democrat will have much difficulty beating Kay Bailey Hutchison in a gubernatorial race, unless Hutchison somehow falls victim to the Grand Derangement seizing the GOP base at the moment.)

Still, White’s got plenty going for him with regard to statewide electability, as does that other Democratic office holder being talked up as a possible Obama Cabinet appointee, Chet Edwards, who keeps getting re-elected by comfortable margins in one of the most conservative congressional districts in the nation. Pro-military (that is, pro-soldier and –vet) and cautious on immigration issues, Edwards either felt secure enough this election cycle, or had enough balls (a possibility we would not discount), to endorse Obama early on and is being mentioned as a prospective V.A. head.

Like White, Edwards has said he’s not up for a Cabinet appointment, but either or both could be prevailed upon if Obama really wanted them.

And suppose Obama would dispatch both to Washington? That would leave Texas Democrats with … well, John Sharp’s always available.

*If for some reason this story does not hold up under future reportorial scrutiny, be advised that we’re just printing the legend.
**We had a friend who also wrote federal legislation when he was 19; unfortunately he was in custody at the time and his “Let’s Get High, America” Act was lost to history.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Good for Business

The election of our new president already has had an invigorating effect on one small corner of the service economy, at least according to a story in Friday's New York Times:
Sales of handguns, rifles and ammunition have surged in the last week, according to gun store owners around the nation who describe a wave of buyers concerned that an Obama administration will curtail their right to bear arms.
And who else would be riding the crest of this retail surge but none other than Our Town's own former unfunny radio "personality" turned gun dealer:
“He’s a gun-snatcher,” said Jim Pruett, owner of Jim Pruett’s Guns and Ammo in northwest Houston, which was packed with shoppers on Thursday.

“He wants to take our guns from us and create a socialist society policed by his own police force,” added Mr. Pruett ... of President-elect Barack Obama.

Mr. Pruett said that sales last Saturday, just before Election Day, ran about seven times higher than a typical good Saturday.

Why do we get the feeling that Sr. Pruett was one of those "reverse Bradley Effect" voters?

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Election Day, November; 1884

If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,
'Twould not be you, Niagara--nor you, ye limitless prairies--nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite--nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,
Nor Oregon's white cones--nor Huron's belt of mighty lakes--nor
Mississippi's stream:
--This seething hemisphere's humanity, as now, I'd name--the still
small voice vibrating--America's choosing day,
(The heart of it not in the chosen--the act itself the main, the
quadriennial choosing,)
The stretch of North and South arous'd--sea-board and inland--
Texas to Maine--the Prairie States--Vermont, Virginia, California,
The final ballot-shower from East to West--the paradox and conflict,
The countless snow-flakes falling--(a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome's wars of old, or modern Napoleon's:)
the peaceful choice of all,
Or good or ill humanity--welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
--Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify--while the heart
pants, life glows:
These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell'd Washington's, Jefferson's, Lincoln's sails.

-- Walt Whitman, from First Annex: Sands at Seventy

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Oh, What a Friend We Have in Bill (Insert Yo’ Face Here)

We’re here to tell you: The big winner in Tuesday’s election will be a guy whose name isn’t on the ballot but whose incorporeal presence hovers above the local proceedings like a stained-glass vision of a 200-foot-tall Jesus. We’re speaking, as you surely know, of el alcalde, the white guy everyone wanted to be seen with this election season.

This desire to be known by all and sundry as a buddy of Bill’s has taken some contorted forms. Just today we received a door-hanger from Michael Skelly, the Democrat who’s trying to unseat our congress person, John “Kid” Culberson (R-Katy Freeway). The oversized card includes a picture of Skelly (unlike in The Kid’s commercials, Skelly appears to have combed his hair for the photo) and White conversing in what we shall describe as a non-descript office setting. (You can tell they’re talking deep shit because White has a binder open to a page with a pie chart on it.) But the words next to the picture constitute something less than a ringing endorsement. We wouldn’t even call them an endorsement. We wouldn’t even call them a testimonial. We’re not sure what we would call them:
“Today we need more elected public officials with both the independence and business skills to actually solve problems and get our national economy and energy policy moving” – Bill White
Sounds so stirring it could only have been written by a team of lawyers.

Stranger still is the FOB move by County Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican whose performance with White during and after Hurricane Ike drew so many favorable notices (rivaled only by the unforgettable performance of the Righteous Brothers on Shindig! in ’65). Emmett, of course, is being challenged by FOB David Mincberg---like White, a D---but he wants a little bit of that Ol’ White Magic to rub off. His TV commercials end with the following tagline:
“Emmett’s leadership was heroic. – Office of Bill White.”
Office of Bill White? Like, his desk and chair and three-ring binder with the pie chart?

The man is golden!

Friday, October 31, 2008

... In Which We Vote Early, and Are Moved to Whitmanesque Rhapsody Over the Glories of Democracy

We carved some time out of our sorta-busy schedule on Thursday to cast an early vote at the Bayland Community Center. It turned out we needn't have carved out quite so large a slice, as the line, despite winding almost halfway around the sizable building, moved quickly and we were able to discharge our civic duty in about 25 minutes, 26 tops.

It was a beautiful, sunny day and everyone in line was courteous and seemed in relatively high spirits---living contradiction to the abstract nastiness of the national campaign. The queue graciously parted and closed again when precinct workers returned from fetching hobbled or enfeebled voters and escorted them to the front of the line (we'll remember to bring our cane next election). The variegated glory of the city, and southwest Houston in particular, was present in all its multitudinous parts: the middle-aged Chinese couple in front of us, conversing in Mandarin, the lady gripping a rolled-up League of Women Voters election guide; the young Hispanic woman behind us who said she had taken off from work and although initially daunted by the length of the line found it to be moving remarkably fast; the elderly black man, doddering precariously on his walker, who waited patiently until a poll worker helped him inside; the middle-aged white man in shades and the red Sopranos ball cap (that was us). People were happy, and chatty, but in a solemn and restrained way, as if they were on the steps of a Methodist church after services (light on the sermonizing, heavy on the good works, no fire and brimstone whatsoever). As sometimes happens, we were moved to a near-weepy reverie over our wonderful country, and how much we love it (despite its---and our---many failings).

Did we see any celebrities (you're probably asking)? Uh, no, but we did pass before candidates and relatives of candidates. There was citizen Bob Higley, who was passing out push cards for his wife, a candidate for re-election to a state appellate court (how sweet!)---literature that we noticed nowhere mentioned Justice Higley's party affiliation (R). As we rounded the corner there stood Joan Huffman, a Republican candidate in our top-of-the-ballot special election to fill an empty state Senate seat. Ms. Huffman was leaning on a crutch, literally (we did not inquire as to whether she had sustained injury while block-walking). When she sought to push her card on us we felt compelled to explain that we would gladly read her advertisement but would "probably" vote for the main Democratic candidate. "Sure, that's OK," said she. "Gee," we thought, as the line moved on, "she sure is a nice lady," a Gladwellian snap judgment that was reinforced when we heard the old black dude with the walker worry aloud whether his early vote would be fully counted---something off-the-wall like that---and Ms. Huffman patiently assured him it would be. Hmmm, thought we, maybe we'll vote for this lady. After all, we were in no way wedded to Democrat Chris Bell, and had only resolved to vote for him because he's a nice guy, too, and desperately wants to hold some---any?---public office. (We're not a natural people pleaser but we try to help others in need, when we can, and along those lines were hope Sr. Bell will consider a 12-step program for habitual office-seeks should he suffer voter rejection this go-round.) As we rounded into the home stretch---past the cardboard boxes some public-spirited type had provided for the "recycling" of push cards---we had just about made up our mind to go with Ms. Huffman. Then we perused her push card and noticed she had proudly listed her endorsement by the scrofulous Link Letter. Back to C-Bell for us!

Shortly thereafter we were glad-handed by one Dexter Handy, Democratic candidate for Precinct 3 county commissioner, a retired Air Force officer who introduced himself to us (and everyone else) as "honest, ethical and handy," something like that. This caused us to briefly consider asking him to accompany us back home to help fix our leaky kitchen faucet. Instead, we were so taken by the push-card picture of Mr. Handy, resplendent in his old uniform and sporting an impressive chestful of medals, that we cast our meager vote for him. (We have no problem with the incumbent, who we assume will be handily re-elected without our vote.) And for the Justice Missus Higley. And Chris Bell, redoubtable one-time office-holder searching for yet another office to hold. And many judicial candidates who were rank strangers to us.

You say we're superficial, and we say, yes, but that is an inalienable right with which we have been endowed by our Creator. We hope you have a wonderful Election Day and that you remain, as always, honest, ethical and handy.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Uh Oh: What World Class Metropolis Is He Forgetting?

From a story in the Oct. 26 New York Times Magazine, quoting NBA Commissioner David Stern on the extension of the league's franchise to such tank towns as Oklahoma City:
He remains adamant that N.B.A. franchises must remain in the nation’s largest cities. He ticks them off: “Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles. . . If I’ve forgotten one, I don’t mean to. The Top 10.”

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Little Bitty Story ’Bout America, Told, We Hope, Without Saccharine or Sentiment

Back during the Democratic primaries, when we’d ask our mother about Obama, she’d wrinkle her forehead and raise her eyebrows before muttering darkly about the “cult-like” trappings of his popularity. This was---is---a not uncommon reaction among people whose intelligence we respect, including the Libertarian guy behind the counter at a Starbucks we frequent who, on the day after Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, claimed that the whole fussy production reminded him of The Nightmare Years, the William Shirer tome on Hitler’s rise to power. We tend(ed) to agree with these assessments, except that instead of a home-grown, Oprah-ized fascism---suggested by that precious Orwellian admonition to “become the change you’ve been waiting for”---we saw a benighted but goofy idealism toted like a giant chip on the shoulder by the young and would-be young, one that would surely be shattered by a head-on collision with reality (which has surely come, as you can trace through Obama’s transformation in cinematic archetype from Elmer Gantry to Cool Hand Luke, a much more appealing pose).

But we entertained our mother’s objections seriously. She voted for Clinton in her Democratic primary---support that, as for many women her age and younger, was surely aspirational. Plus, she admired the woman’s resiliency and her hard-nosed MYF* do-gooderism. She even likes Bill, a lot, but ruefully, most likely because he reminded her of some needy, too-eager-to-please first graders she had taught over the years. (She’s the only person we know who actually read the man’s jillion-page autobiography.)

We found her post-convention aversion to Obama odd, though, because she’s a Democrat who can count on her fingers the Republicans she’s voted for over the past 60 years. That includes Eisenhower, twice, and a school board candidate who was the son of a beloved and respected principal she worked for. (“He’s a very nice boy, and intelligent, but he’s a, y’know, Republican,” she explained after raising a yard sign for the boy.) There may have been a GOP candidate or two for governor of Louisiana in there somewhere, although she stuck with Democrat Edwin Edwards, one of the most corrupt politicians of post-World War II America, because he as promised had paid off his support from schoolteachers with nice retirement benefits. She has long been disdainful of the entire Bush clan. Back in 2000 she presciently dismissed the incoming president as a “drugstore cowboy,” and just two weeks after he launched his misadventure in Iraq she stood glaring at CNN and declared, through clenched teeth, “That SOB has a tiger by the tail, mark my word.”

So she’s pretty much a yellow dog Democrat, an affiliation that dates far back into Texas’s and our nation’s past. Hers is not the typical story of small-town, segregationist Democrat-turned-conservative suburban Republican, but rather of small-town segregationist Democrat-turned- moderately conservative Democrat, and remaining one. The party may have left her, but she did not leave the party.

A distaste for Vietnam helped maintain the allegiance after LBJ departed, but she primarily remained a Democrat because, like many white Southerners, she found it impossible to deny the moral claims of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement---impossible to square the supposed point of World War II and the ideas about liberty and freedom she was exposed to in college with the everyday brutal reality of enforced segregation in the Deep South. These people did not march or agitate but quietly resolved to acquiesce. They were not heroic, but they went against their raising. That’s hard to do.

Our mother grew up in deep East Texas, in the same little town from which future San Francisco mayor Willie Brown fled while still a teenager. A little to the north of there sits the burg of Greenville, which as, she recalls, once famously welcomed visitors with a cheery sign proclaiming “Greenville: The Blackest Land and the Whitest People.” Her father, a “railroad doctor” for Southern Pacific, was a power in local politics, maybe the power, and back then “power” meant Democrat and in much of East Texas Democrat meant “Dixiecrat” or the Texas Regulars, as those who had soured on FDR’s overreaching and the national party’s tentative embrace of civil rights called themselves. She remembers taking a train to Dallas to accompany her father to a state convention, maybe the one where the Texas Regulars threw their support to Strom Thurmond. “I didn’t know anything about politics,” she says. “I just wanted to go to Neiman’s.”

Some years later, in the early ’60s, long after my grandfather had died, I was party to at least two strange, overheated summer nights when relatives sat around the big oak table in the dining foyer of the House of Seven Gables-style manse my mother’s family had occupied for almost a century. Through a thick haze of cigarette smoke, they argued, argued, argued until late in the evening, voices rising loudly and falling as they debated the changes that were stirring even in their little nowhere town. The word “nigger” occasionally lit the air---these were not uneducated or even unrefined people, more like what they used to call small-town shabby genteel, but they were of their place and time---and the bitterness was as thick as the smoke. On one side, alone, was my mother, who had gone away to UT during the Homer Rainey years and never really returned home, and on the other was my aunt Rosalie and my grandmother and other relatives and dropper-bys. In the face of unanimous opposition from others around the table, my mother maintained that whether they liked it or not integration was coming and they best reconcile themselves to it. One or both of these evenings ended with her in tears (we believe our father, who did not enjoy confrontation or too much political discussion, must have retired to the big front porch to discuss SWC football with another non-combatant) and suggestions that she was a traitor---to her family, and a whole way of life.

We look back now and see our self on those nights as a Stuart Little figure, quiet and watchful in our PJs, absorbing it all while being violently transported a new kind of adult wakefulness by the vehemence of the discussion, the dropping of the masks. We recall rooting quietly for our mother and admiring her intellect and obstinacy, her unwillingness to back down.

Not that she’s a flaming liberal. She’s got no use for affirmative action or illegal immigration and little tolerance for the Al Sharptons or anyone else who hollers “racism” when the facts could just as easily suggest another interpretation. After Obama’s nomination she professed to be up in the air. “I don’t know what I’m going do,” she’d say when we’d inquire. “Oh, I know why you’re not going for Obama,” we teased. “You know I’m not like that,” she’d say, genuinely offended. “Yeah---we understand, believe me, we understand,” we’d say, reflecting our own dissatisfaction with the choices, but like the jerk we are we did wonder whether 1930s East Texas was just too deeply ingrained in her to let her vote for a black guy.

Then came Palin. “I guess I’m going with Obama,” she said without much enthusiasm. And the financial crisis. “Yeah, I’m with Obama,” she said with slightly more conviction. “He did pretty good in that debate, I thought.”

And there it is. She’s not voting for the guy because he’s black---that’d be the last thing she’d do. And she’s not voting for him because he’s a Democrat. She weighed the imperfect options before her and made her choice, reluctantly. And whatever happens on Nov. 4, we have to stand back in wonderment at how far our mother, now in her 9th decade, has traveled from home. If we told her as much, she would, to her credit, probably suggest that we are full of shit.

*Methodist Youth Fellowship, for you infidels.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Commercial Landmarks of Houston, No. 5 in Our Award-Winning Series

When it was built in 1963 it was hailed as the 8th Wonder of the World. Or maybe the 9th or 10th---something thereabouts. While its exact wonderment ranking is lost to history, it is generally recognized by preservationists and architectural historians as the first domed transmission repair shop in the 3400 block of Chimney Rock. The first fully equipped one, that is. But now the Transmission Dome has fallen into disrepair and disuse, a magnet for the graffiti artist and vagabond. There is some talk of turning the Dome into a Japanese-style hot-sheet hotel, complete with a small "gondola ride" between cubicles, but the credit crunch has probably queered those plans. Vestige of a simpler day, we're afraid we'll never see its like again.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Gots to Get Our Rest, ’Cause Even If Monday’s Not a Mess, Tuesday is Sure to Leave Us in Deep Distress

We realized over the weekend that we are beset by Disaster Fatigue Syndrome. We don’t know whether this is a condition recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, but we’re sure that if we asked him our primary care physician would gladly authorize the dispensation of some medication that would bring at least temporary surcease to our suffering while leaving us severely constipated and diminishing what’s left of our sex drive.

First it was Gustav, which swung wide of Houston but ran right up through the Hub City, where we sat in the dark with our 81-year-old mother while winds howled (they actually did---like a goddamn dog at midnight) and we kept a weather eye on the towering, antediluvian oak in the back yard (which made it through, somehow). Gustav felicitously chose the Labor Day Weekend to come ashore, permitting us the leisure to spend 8.5 hours---we timed it---cleaning the mountains of leaves, branches and limbs it left in the yard. Afterward, we realized that we are old. There was no electricity that Monday night and we slept as soundly and for as long as we did back when we were a hirsute young man and gave nary a shit about anything. The electricity came back on early the next evening, by which time the city had cleared the surrounding streets of fallen trees and debris (they seem quicker on the uptake in the Hub City than in Houston---and this is Louisiana, my friends---but it’s probably just a matter of scale). We felt it was OK to leave our mother to her bridge and books and Turner Classic movies and beat a hasty retreat home.

Then came Ike, and we all have our Ike stories so we’ll bore you no further with ours except to report that the oak that once covered much of our front yard is gone, thanks mostly to our own spindly self and two guys named Jose who had a small tractor with a rusty claw that did not open but was useful as a battering ram. Jose No. 2, who, strangely for a Mexican, was the size of an NFL linebacker, rammed and rammed and rammed in a harrowing, hour-long round of attack and regroup … until, as promised, he and Jose No. 1 had nudged the stump, and half of our front yard, aboard a goose-neck trailer. We paid them the requested $300 in cash (most of the Americanos---white, brown and black---asked for at least three times that), shook their hands and bid them adieu, without inquiring as to their legal status.

Oh—we also must credit the contractors and subcontractors hired by the city to cart away the fallen timber. From what we’ve seen and heard in our neighborhood and other parts of town the haulers have done an expeditious and relatively thorough job (of course, the city’s under a FEMA deadline to receive federal reimbursement, but still … ). This is an example of government marshaling its resources and rising to the occasion, and for that we would like to thank whomever needs to be thanked.

But even this salutary development brings us no lasting joy, for the financial crisis that came ashore the day after Ike (as we in the locality will always remember it) still lurks overhead, casting a dark pall on what should be the cool, crisp, up-and-at-'em days of early autumn. This certainly was the most anticipated, most predicted and most written-about-in-advance “crisis” in recorded history. And the most-analyzed after the fact. In the past month we have read countless stories in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and other publications positing this or that cause for the debacle. Each seems to be describing a different part of the elephant for the blind man, and all we feel is the pressure of the beast’s massive, wrinkly leg on our chest.

Then we stumbled across this piece by one Patrick J. Deneen, who writes the second-best-named blog in the Western Hemisphere (after this one). Deneen, who appears to be a Paleo-con, a Catholic of some stripe and a neo-Kunstlerian (a designation we just made up)*, teaches political science at Georgetown. His posting sums up some of what we've been flapping our jaws about on this blog for the past few years, albeit in a more learned and eloquent manner (he, after all, is a professor, while we proudly graduated in the top 75 percent of our class at Hub City High). "Abstraction" certainly deserves wider distribution, if only for this heart-rending observation:

We inhabit a world which we have made obscure to ourselves. The height of our civilization has been to render the world unknown to us. The modern project seeking the conquest of nature has resulted in the imperative that we become ignorant. We know much, but little of substance or based in the reality of the existence we inhabit. We are distant from where, what, and who we are.
We read this, heed the resonant bell of truth, and feel our burden lifted. We believe we can make it through without the false comfort afforded by modern pharmaceuticals. At least until Wednesday.

*Say what you will about James Kunstler, and we know he’s an acquired taste, but the man has been dead-on in predicting each stage of the implosion---save for the total collapse of the stock market, and it’s still early---and he was doing it two years out.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Modern Weaponry

A casual acquaintance has brought to our attention a recent memo from the director of Communities in Schools Houston announcing that the non-profit has launched a project to reward students "who think positively, demonstrate good conduct and improve their grades." Young scholars who comport themselves thusly can get two free "smiley face pins" a week: one for conduct, a second for good grades. But the author of the memo obviously knows that when it comes to today's youth one must be prepared for all eventualities:
If students use the Smiley face as a weapon and poke other students with it the students will be banned from the Smiley face project for a designated period of time based on [the teacher's] judgment.
Banned from the Smiley face project. Next stop: the penitentiary.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Dr. Elyse to Hank Paulson: Defibrillate Us, Daddy, So We Can Feel Our Left Arm Again

The Houston Chronicle recently notified us that it would be raising its monthly subscription rate by a dollar. This news briefly led us to consider whether it was time to cancel. It wasn't the extra dollar itself---hell, the market's burned through so many of our retirement dollars* in the past two weeks that we're hardly going to miss a measly buck a month---but the principle of the thing. After all, here's a business asking for more of our money while visibly cutting back on what supposedly is its main product---news coverage**---by laying off or buying out veteran reporters. (And since much of the front page during the presidential campaign and ongoing financial crisis is being given over to dispatches from the New York Times, why not just skip the middle man and go straight to the Times while getting whatever local news we need from the electronic media or the paper's Web site? Huh, why not?)

Then we thought about what we'd be missing with our morning coffee---not just the predictable offerings of the paper's Teen Columnist and the meanderings of Rick "The Hurricane Was But a Mere Electrical Storm" Casey but the much-appreciated relationship advice of working girl "Whit" and the entire page of valuable newsprint the Chronicle devotes to TMI (a painfully tone-deaf gesture in this day and time, we'd say). Most of all, we'd miss the reportage of doughty society correspondent Shelby Hodge on the comings and goings and chowing-downs of the rich and fatuous. (Close readers with long memories will recall that the newspaper, in another strangely tone-deaf gesture, dispatched Mlle. Hodge to cover the big fund-raiser that compact socialite Rebecca Cason Thrash tossed for the Louvre in Paris some months ago. We believe this trip fell between rounds of layoffs and buyouts, so that was OK.)

If we had let our Chronicle subscription lapse we most likely would have missed out on Hodge's Tuesday column, which launched off with a chatty nod to reality
The economy might be tanking and most of us have given up on retirement,*** but some fortunate Houstonians are still eating high on the hog ...
before interrupting regular programming to deliver this important pronouncement from everybody's favorite port commissioner from the 70019 zip code:
Speaking in medical terms,Elyse Lanier offered her analogy for the current economic climate. "Our country is in ventricular fibrillation," she said Friday night at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Grand Gala Ball, which, by the way, brought in $1.3 million. "It needs a defibrillator to shock our system back into sinus rhythm."**** In layman's terms — a normal heartbeat.
If we remember correctly, Elyse's husband, the former Mayor Bob, has himself been defibrillated, perhaps on more than one occasion, and used to be in the banking and S&L rackets, so we're confident that the port commissioner knows of which she speaks.

If only our president could be so articulate.

*We know---it's only paper losses.

**Oh, we're not really that naive.

***Except for her colleagues who were forced to take the buyouts, of course.

****Would a $250 billion semi-nationalization of the banks qualify?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

“Got to Get My Rest, ’Cause Monday is a Mess”

We suppose it’s not going too far out on an Ike-damaged limb to conclude that the days of Easy Credit and Ceaseless Happy Motoring are rapidly drawing to a close here in the U.S. of A., yet we couldn’t help but notice amid the sobering events of the past week that many of our fellow citizens still refuse to decamp from the FantasyLand where they apparently took up residence long ago. They seem to be everywhere we look these days---or maybe they just stand out in bolder relief against the darkening backdrop---but we can find no better example than the archetypal Grumpy White Man who during a McCain rally in Wisconsin on Thursday commandeered center stage to rail about “the socialist[s] taking over the country,” a development he laid at the feet of “Obama, Pelosi, and the rest of the hooligans up there …”

This man obviously missed the previous evening’s debate, which Comrade McCain opened by tossing out his $300 billion plan to buy up bad mortgages, a "plan" that at least had the small virtue of extending taxpayer largesse to the deadbeats of “Main Street”* in addition to those dashing “risk takers” of Wall Street. Yeah, socialism has come to America, but the Grumpy White Man slept right through it.

The next day’s McCain rally in Minnesota brought forth from the woodwork a woman who blurted out “he’s … an Arab!” when explaining to the candidate why she doesn’t “trust” Obama (his ethnicity a "fact" she claimed to have “read”). We presume she was about to cut loose with “he’s … a nigger!” but hastily settled on “Arab” as an acceptable substitute.

The addled and aimless lurking at the far fringes of McCain’s rallies are indeed scary, but what we found truly frightening last week was the fading specter of Ayn Rand acolyte Alan Greenspan, once hailed as “The Wizard” by Republican and Democrat alike but now reduced to having the veneer stripped from his reputation on the front page of Wednesday’s New York Times, wherein it was reported that …
Today, with the world caught in an economic tempest that Mr. Greenspan recently described as “the type of wrenching financial crisis that comes along only once in a century,” his faith in derivatives remains unshaken.

The problem is not that the contracts failed, he says. Rather, the people using them got greedy. A lack of integrity spawned the crisis, he argued in a speech a week ago at Georgetown University, intimating that those peddling derivatives were not as reliable as “the pharmacist who fills the prescription ordered by our physician.”
Imagine that: people got greedy! That’s never happened before in the history of humankind! Look at Roark, in The Fountainhead, he was a man of such rectitude …

It’s days like these that we wish our father were still alive, just to talk to a bit, get his take on the events, maybe be bucked-up with some advice. Back in ’98 or ’99, we remember him poking his head up through the fog of the Alzheimer’s that was then slowly enveloping his mind to offer a cogent, lucid warning on the dangers of putting too much of our meager assets into tech stocks, and while we were already aware of the risks and had acted accordingly we as usual were comforted to have our instincts seconded by someone who had our interests at heart.

As far as we know our daddy never read Ayn Rand but he was always smart about money, pursuing a Buffett-style course of investing long before he or anyone else had heard of the Nebraskan. Late in his life he hung from the wall of the suburban home he built in 1962 for $15,000 a piece of wood on which was lacquered a letter from a small-town bank attesting to the good character of his father, our grandfather, who worked for many years in the lignite mines of East Texas before quitting to open a small grocery on the square of a town that even then would have rated the description “dying.” The banker said he could gladly recommend our grandfather as a man of his word who always made his payments on time, and that was the extent of it.

At the time we were puzzled by the wall hanging, as the letter was all of two sentences long, but now, as with most everything our father said or did, we understand.

*A street called home by a guy named "Joe Sixpack" and his wife "Hockey Mom."