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.