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!