High on Life — Jumbo and Willie

During the 60s and 70s, when Bee Caves Road was little more than a drive through the country, there was a beer joint whose back fence hid a small cabin on a back lot known by the cognoscenti as “the Pad.”  The Pad’s proprietor and master of ceremonies was Ben Dodson Atwell, a State Representative, elected from Dallas.  The Pad was his home during his 24 legislative sessions, numerous special sessions, and whenever he tired of Dallas life. 

Most everyone knew him as “Jumbo,” the nickname he acquired as a UT student. Many think it derived from his height (6’4”), but I also heard that it originated from his prodigious consumption of milk shakes made with  Jumbo brand ice cream.

When Jumbo was in residence, a typical day at the Pad started early with music emanating from various speakers, inside and outside of the cabin.  Faron, Willie, Waylon, Marty, Ray, Charlie, and Merle sang from the outdoor speakers to the adjacent woods, its creatures, and a church built in later years behind the trees next door. (Yes, the church folk appealed to city leaders to make the music stop on Sundays, but to no avail.  The music was there first.)

As the day wore on, the Pad attracted drop-in visits from people of all persuasions, e.g., local folks, legislators (former and current), and friends passing through town.  You could distinguish between first- and old-timers by whether they recognized the painting Jumbo called Mrs. Nelson with a greeting or a reverent touch as they walked by her.  Mrs. Nelson was a tasteful depiction of the back of a nude woman’s torso, from the nape of her neck to the beginning of her calves.  

Jumbo welcomed everybody.  What set him apart then (and would more so today) was that he bore no ill will against his opposition in the legislative arena.  Of course, during his days in the Leg, almost everyone was a Democrat — Republicans could be counted on one hand — but the Ds were divided between conservatives and liberals and functioned like two parties.  Yet, Jumbo was known to quip, “I vote with the conservatives, but I party with the liberals.”  Hence, Jumbo gladly hosted liberal champions of union interests even while he supported the conservative business interests of his Dallas district.  

He may have loved a good party, but Jumbo was serious about lawmaking and achieved many things in his 24 years.  He sponsored the Water Safety Act of 1959 and subsequent amendments — which earned him recognition as the “Father of Water Safety.”  Jumbo also sponsored the bill creating the first dental school in Dallas, and was instrumental in guiding the House bill creating the authority to build DFW Airport.  He had a strong conservationist streak with bills protecting whooping cranes and roadrunners.  In 1971, he introduced two bills to protect the cougar, the Texas mountain lion, in danger of extinction.  Those two bills were unsuccessful and the cougar remains unprotected.

Jumbo receiving boating safety award from Speaker Gus Mutscher.

 But he was proudest of his work as chairman of the Revenue and Tax (now Ways and Means) committee for 12 years during which he authored and passed various tax bills, while killing any efforts to tax groceries.  Spearheading the passage of tax bills won’t make you popular, but Jumbo was undaunted. Undoubtedly, his service as a navigator on a WWII minesweeper  stiffened his resolve for accomplishing the uncelebrated, but necessary, tasks, like imposing taxes on your fellow citizens.  

It’s not glamorous work, he’d explain, but we couldn’t have a dependable government without revenues.  And, yet, he noticed, while surveying the headstones in the State Cemetery one day, among those state officials who had served in the government, no one chose passing tax legislation as a lasting legacy. 

So, long before he needed it, Jumbo made sure it would be part of his, ordering his pink granite headstone in the shape of Texas with this inscription:   

Lawyer – Legislator

Author of Tax Bill

For years, the headstone waited patiently for him at the cemetery by his strategically-selected burial plot.  The plot he chose is close to 7th street, he said, allowing his friends leaving Ciscos Bakery to wave at him as they headed to the Capitol.

I was about 15 when Jumbo made his appearance in my life story. My parents had been divorced a year or so and my mother had begun dating.  That’s not easy when you have a smart-ass teen-age daughter who could be, perhaps, a bit intimidating to men who weren’t looking for trouble.  But, it was impossible to intimidate Jumbo.  He was a big guy and not one for debating with teen-agers, appearing very stern a lot of the time — until he let loose with that sunshiny smile.   

Jumbo did fun things that included me and my sister.  He introduced us to Luckenbach, before it was famous.  Lazy afternoons watching the town’s owners, Hondo Crouch and Guich Koock, perform were such a treat.  

Jumbo watching Guich Koock in Luckenbach.

Then, there were chili cook-offs.   As one of the sponsors/founders of the San Marcos Chilympiad and others, Jumbo  would often be a judge or enter as a contestant.  When he was competing, he’d pick a theme and his entourage, which might  include me and some of my friends, would dress up accordingly and help him compete. I ingested a lot of chili back then!  Tip:  you can’t win with beans in your chili.  

Jumbo (Riverboat Gambler) and the River City Chili Queens at Luckenbach’s Amelia Jenks Bloomer Chili Cookoff

I also liked being an adjunct to Jumbo’s and Mother’s life because I was able to hang out with his friends on occasion.  They could be current or former legislators, lobbyists of various interest groups, Don Russell the president of Aquarena Springs who once wrestled an alligator, local Westlake folks like Emmett and Joyce Shelton, or Austin notables, like Joe “the Barber” (Picciandra).  Jumbo surrounded himself with many interesting “characters,” although few outshone Jumbo. 

Except, maybe, Willie Nelson.  

Willie didn’t drop by the Pad, as I recall.  Instead, Jumbo went to Willie to catch his shows.  Long before Willie moved to Austin, Jumbo had met him playing poker when Willie was passing through Dallas.  Or so I heard.  

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Willie.  Still in high school, I joined Jumbo and Mother at the historic Dessau Hall (Elvis played there twice).  That night’s headliner was Sammi Smith, whose “Help Me Make it Through the Night,” was a current big hit.  But, Willie made more of an impression on me, especially since he came over to the table to say hello.   He wore a loose lantern-sleeved white shirt drawn in by a lace-up vest. His hair was cut in a short page boy, if memory serves.  I don’t remember his pants. I’m sure he wasn’t wearing tights, although they would have completed this Renaissance look.  Needless to say, Willie’s look has changed over the years.

Here’s a very early example of Willie’s look (autographed to my mother — we share first names)

There would be many other Willie outings.  For example, one Saturday, Jumbo got word that Willie was dropping in at Luckenbach for a surprise outdoor concert.  Sure enough, we were there when his bus rolled up on the town’s one road, along with about a hundred other in-the-know fans, ready to watch the concert.

My sister reminded me of the night that Willie was performing at the Broken Spoke and Mother and Jumbo took her and some friends to celebrate her birthday.  At the end of the night, while the adults chatted and drank with Willie, he heard about the occasion and handed my sister the key to his Cadillac, inviting her to take it for a birthday spin with her friends.  She only had a learner’s permit, but she jumped at the opportunity.

In addition to listening to and going to Willie’s shows, Jumbo also “performed” a couple of Willie songs.  By performing, I mean that he would mug and lip sync to his two favorite Willie recordings of Bring Me Sunshine, and Me and Paul

Jumbo gave these performances in front of guests at the Pad, chili cook-offs, and wherever he found a stage (and had his Willie tape on hand). 

Jumbo performing with help from Madeline Gaddis (my grandmother)

The best Jumbo-Willie performance was in 1974 at Castle Creek, a club located next door to the Chili Parlor where Willie and his band were appearing. As pre-arranged, Willie invited Jumbo to join him on stage and, while Willie and the band performed the two songs, Jumbo performed his lip syncing act as if he were the star of the show!!  It was great to watch the two having fun — just high on life!  We were two blocks from the Capitol and many of the folks suffering through the party-less Constitutional Convention showed up at the club, including the House of Representatives’s photographer who, fortunately, brought his camera and captured the moment.  

Willie and Jumbo at Castle Creek, 1974.

I am pretty sure that Willie Nelson will never know a bigger fan than Jumbo, as I’m also convinced that the Texas Capitol will never see a bigger personality than Jumbo Atwell.

 A true original, I think Jumbo would have been a great performer.  Music was an indispensable part of his life and brought him great happiness.  

And now that I think about it, Willie would’ve made a great politician.  Just imagine the new spin he’d bring to legislators working in smoke-filled rooms!!

Posted in Memories, Old/New Austin | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

The End of Roe and the End of the Road

The writing is on the wall (and a draft Supreme Court opinion):  Roe v. Wade will soon gasp its last breath at the hands of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and his co-Taliban wannabes.  The last fifty years of women having a constitutionally protected right to make decisions about their own bodies will be history.

According to Alito, Roe must be overturned because it is an ill-conceived and deeply flawed decision that invented the right of privacy, a right not specifically spelled out in the Constitution. He also dismisses Planned Parenthood v. Casey that holds the right to an abortion is found within the general concept of “liberty.”

To overrule these cases Alito tramples over the judicial doctrine of “stare decisis,” whose translation means that what’s been decided should stay decided.  Its rationale is that decided cases, also known as precedents, provide stability in society, allowing citizens to arrange their lives in reliance on the law. 

But, no problem.  Alito informs us that stare decisis is “not an inexorable command,” by which he means we can do whatever we feel like.   Now, they feel like “correcting” Roe and Casey.

The big question now is whether the Supreme Court will revisit and “correct” other intimate personal decisions that previous courts have upheld. Alito’s draft says that “our decision concerns the constitutional right to abortion and no other right,” but that’s not really believable considering his record and the implications of this ruling. The three most at risk include: Griswold v. Connecticut, which protects contraception access; Loving v. Virginia, which held laws against interracial marriage were unconstitutional; and Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

I’d be willing to bet that the dominos start toppling in Roe‘s wake.  Anyone who’s been been awake at some point during the last 50 years knows that the Republican Party has made overturning Roe among its prime directives.  But, it’s just not abortions they oppose.  They don’t like gay sex, same sex marriage, interracial marriage, or even contraception. They justify their dislike on the concept of originalism, i.e., if it’s not specifically mentioned in the Constitution, drafted in 1787 (or Bill of Rights 1791), a right doesn’t exist.  They will re-interpret cases to roll back, in effect, the period from 1965, when Griswold was decided, to the present, during which we’ve seen an expansion of personal rights.  Alito’s statement that this won’t effect other rights is simply “not true.”  The Alito wrecking crew will, surely, usher in a period of contraction and elimination of those personal rights we’ve arranged our lives around. 

This means that Roe’s loss is not just a woman’s issue, but a societal issue.  People have been able to love and marry as they want.  No matter your sexual orientation, you can be you and contribute as you see fit.  Society as a whole has benefitted from women and men being able to control their futures, to decide when bringing children in the world is a right for them.  

But the times they are a’changing.  Republicans (and white supremacists, if there’s a difference) have been saying that American women need to have more babies to counteract the high fertility rate and influx of immigrants.  You may have heard this and thought they meant voluntarily, but now it seems that a tyrannical minority that includes the Court intend for women to produce those babies, whether they like it or not.  

I first heard the “more babies” argument in 2013 when Texas Republican, Barry Smitherman, shared with an audience his plan for getting more non-minority babies. Young women, he explained, need to use college as hunting grounds to find husbands and, then, soon after graduation, put any career plans on hold and get started with baby-making. “We have to encourage the production of more children,” Smitherman exhorted, as if he were referring to a widget factory. “Young people: first, get married, and then begin having children.”  He decried the fact that educated white women have a collective fertility rate of only 1.6 when we need 2.1 for mere replacement.  He and his wife, he boasted, did their part with an impressive brood of FOUR children.

But the world has changed since Smitherman girded his loins and got into production with sweet Maryanne. For most women, the whole point of attending college is to have careers and get started with them, or continue on with post-graduate studies in law, medicine, business, or whatever.  They know that starting a family right away will derail them from these goals.  

I wonder whether parents want to pay for a daughter’s college plan that centers on hooking a breeding partner and start churning out babies.  And what student would take out loans when repayments would come due at the same time as bills for diapers and formula?  Smitherman  didn’t utter the words “barefoot and pregnant,” but his plan sounds like one way of diminishing the presence of women in colleges, boardrooms, courtrooms, and operating rooms.

If you are cool with Smitherman’s marriage-and-baby production plan, no need to read on.  But other men must consider the effect on their futures when engaging in sex and possibly fathering a child.  Without marriage, the father will still be responsible for monthly child support payments for the first 18 years of the child’s life.   There’s no escape clause from this obligation, enforced by the Attorney General’s office.  Failure to pay can result in the garnishment of wages, suspension of drivers’ and professional licenses and denial of a passport.  The baby father can also have liens filed on properties, bank accounts, and other assets, and, ultimately, face jail time and criminal fines.  

And don’t think we can preserve the protections of Roe and other rights by federal statute.  Any such bills would be blocked by the Senate filibuster rule, a disappointing feature of our current government that could be easily changed if there weren’t Democratic hold-outs.  (Thanks, Joe Manchin.)

Those who would block any such bills are Republicans who don’t care that 70% of the American public do not want Roe overturned or that approximately the same proportion believe an abortion decision should be made by the woman and her doctor.  The percentages of support are even higher when the woman’s physical health is endangered or when pregnancies are caused by rape or incest. Despite this level of support, these senators could care less about the will of the people. 

Tragically, ours is a country where Republican-dominated state legislatures and a U.S. Senate controlled, in effect, by Republicans are poised to drag us back to the past, to eliminate the ability of women, men, and couples to make their own choices.

Equally tragic, ours is a country whose government, controlled by the aforementioned Republicans, doesn’t believe in any safety net to provide for the needs of children after birth, counting on families and single mothers to raise them whatever their circumstances.

Ours is a country where personal decisions that should be made in bedrooms and doctors’ offices will soon be dictated by politicians and Catholic jurists who do not represent the interests of the majority of Americans.  

What to do? Normally, I’d say the recipe for overcoming this situation would be to vote and remove from office those elected officials who don’t represent the majority’s preferences.  I’d encourage campaign contributions and volunteer work to elect candidates who do care about choice and real, live children. 

But, our voting districts are gerrymandered.  Our votes don’t make any difference when districts are drawn by those in power with the intent to stay in power.  

And then, there’s the U.S. Senate, hopelessly unrepresentative of the majority of this country.  That is the place where bills supported by the majority of Americans go to die and reactionary judges get approved.  Since every state has two senators, whatever their size, rural interests have a disproportionate clout.   Consider that Wyoming has 262,719 registered voters, while California has over 22 million, thereby institutionalizing a preference for rural interests over the majority urban interests.  The chances of changing that?  My educated guess would be…zero. 

I was beginning to have doubts about our system with Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump, but now, with the demise of Roe, and all the other rights that will surely be repudiated by Alito and his Tali-band, I’ve lost my hope for this country.   I’ve lost my hope in U.S. democracy.  You can’t have a healthy democracy when its citizens are being stripped of their rights.  The criminalizing of abortions seems to be a leading indicator of democratic decline.

I’d like to find some nugget of optimism, but, sadly, we stand weaponless and surrounded by the forces of misogyny, ignorance, corruption, autocracy, and greed.  

Sorry, Mr. Franklin, it was a good republic, but it was too hard to keep.

Posted in Politics, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

My Quest to Find the Rude in Rhode Island

In case you’ve ever wondered which state is the most polite, YouGov.com asked the following question to 77,000 people across the nation: do people in your state tend to be more rude or more polite than most other Americans. You might be surprised to learn that Rhode Islanders ranked themselves as the most rude, 50th place on the politeness scale.

This is especially significant considering that Rhode Island is really small, boasting a whopping 1.06 million residents and 1,214 square miles of territory. It would easily fit within the boundaries of the Greater Houston area. So, even weighting the results as statisticians do, if Rhode Island got enough responses in the polite rankings to come in dead last, rudeness must be rampant. Or, maybe Rhode Islanders excel in candid self-reflection?

I’ve had a particular interest in Rhode Island since my boyfriend, Robin, took up residence in Providence for a while. I hadn’t heard of this survey before I visited him, so I didn’t expect to be landing in a snake pit of incivility. When it was brought to my attention early on during my stay, I was surprised because all my interactions with the natives had theretofore seemed pretty darn polite. Rhode Islanders complimented me on my Texas accent and, overall, were extremely helpful in the restaurants, bars, and retail establishments we frequented. Many people had visited Austin for one reason or another and were glad to meet us. We cycled on city streets where drivers seemed especially accommodating, not a bit interested in running us off the road. Admittedly, it was a small sampling of the state’s residents.

On the PVD Providence Pedestrian Bridge

But suddenly, my sample size ballooned when I had to meet a bunch of Rhode Islanders all at once. You might question the structure of that last sentence, particularly the “had to” part. You’ll understand when I also explain “suddenly.”

Like, suddenly, I fell off my bicycle. Robin and I were having a wonderful ride along the East Bay Bike Path, when I began to sense my steering wheel was wobbling. Maybe there was a smattering of sand on the concrete. Maybe it was just me. Whichever, I decided to stop. My best reconstruction of the accident is while I applied the hand brakes, I might not have come to a full stop before I tried to dismount. The bike’s remaining momentum threw me down and I broke the arm in an attempt to brace my fall.

By the time Robin had peeled me off the pavement I was hugging, my cell phone rang. I was being called by the Providence Fire Department which had been alerted by the fall detector on my Apple watch (best watch ever!). They couldn’t find us because the path wasn’t visible on their GPS map. Robin gave them directions and a swarm of friendly firefighters was soon upon us. With polite concern, they performed some first aid and gingerly placed my arm in a sling before hauling me down the path to the ambulance. Soon after arrival in the ER, I began meeting Rhode Islanders around every corridor who all wanted to have interactions with me, some painful, some not. But, all polite.

I visited the hospital’s x-ray room frequently that day. Each time I showed up, I was greeted with a “welcome back!” How’s that for friendliness? My second or third photo shoot involved someone pulling my arm to more clearly show the edges of the break. After enduring this tortuous ordeal, which I met with some spectacular grimaces, I was congratulated. Many people, a technician told me, screamed when that was done, so I probably could have gotten away with a sob or two. Was I trying to show my Texas toughness?

But back to Rhode Islanders. Once, while I waited for x-rays in a holding area off the main corridor, a woman on a gurney was wheeled by to get her x-rays. She spots me on my gurney and says, “Oh, there you are! How are you doing?” I thought it was strange that she appeared to know me, but she seemed nice, so I just responded, “I’m hanging in there, thank you.”

Apparently, she soon realized she’d mistaken my identity, and upon leaving the room, she said to me, “I’m sorry, I thought you were my roommate from last night.” I told her that I thought she was just being friendly, adding that Rhode Islanders seemed to be very nice people. Then, a man on a nearby gurney who had appeared to be sleeping, raised his head and said, “We are.” I’m guessing he didn’t respond to the yougov.com survey.

Unfortunately, I would need surgery and a few days later, I met the surgeon who would perform it, Dr. Andrew Evans, co-director of Orthopedic Trauma at Rhode Island Hospital, surgeon with University Orthopedics, and an assistant professor at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School. With so many credentials, I expected an older man. When I asked someone about his apparent youth, I was told he was about 45 — no Doogie Howser. But the more important point is that he, and everyone on his staff couldn’t have been less hostile. Actually, they were great professionals. Not a rude person among them. Dr. Evans’ secretary, Becky, was just a phone call away both before and after my surgery. She was an absolute pleasure to work with. Same with Amanda, her assistant.

A week after my fall, I went back to the hospital to join Dr. Evans as he joined my humerus back together. Since every single person I encountered in pre-op and post-op was so compassionate and caring, I was forced to conclude that rude people didn’t make it into Rhode Island health care.

Nor do they become hairdressers. While incapacitated, I went to a nearby salon and got to know two of the hairdressers, Ray and Jaclyn, who washed and dried my hair at least four or five few times. Both made me feel like an old customer by the time I left town.

You have probably figured out by now that I failed to find rampant rudeness in Rhode Island. I still wonder whether my sample size was too small, even for this small state, but I’d prefer to believe that Rhode Islanders might be too hard on themselves. I’d also like believing that Robin, who doesn’t have a rude bone in his body, is living among a population of equally nice people.

So, that’s what I did during my summer vacation – conducted a survey of rudeness among Rhode Islanders and broke my arm. I wouldn’t recommend breaking an arm, but if it has to happen, Providence, Rhode Island is not a bad place for it. I received excellent care from a great surgeon and very compassionate people. In my case, of course, I had the added benefit of having Robin, the most wonderful and patient caretaker a gal could ask for. He never seemed to tire of caring for the functional equivalent of a five-year-old.

By the way, just in case you wondered about Texans in the YouGov survey, we were ranked No. 19 on the “more polite” scale. Obviously, we have a pretty high opinion of ourselves. In the past, I would have agreed with this opinion, but I run into more rudeness all the time, which I suspect may be the result of migrants from other states. Despite my doubts about their actual rudeness, I might even accept the possibility that we have some former Rhode Islanders in our midst. Maybe it’s no wonder I couldn’t find any rude ones up there!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Zelma for President!!!

The woman known as Bicycle Annie has found her way to my pages of Austin memories on several occasions.  During the 50s, 60s, and 70s, she was a frequent sight along the Drag (the part of Guadalupe on the western edge of the UT campus) and other downtown Austin streets.  As her nickname would suggest, she was often on her bicycle or walking along as she pushed it.  Most Austinites and UT students of those decades remember her, some referring to her as the Indian Princess, other referring to her as simply Bicycle Annie.  She seemed to eschew interaction with others (if not outright resent it) and, was, accordingly, left alone  with the mental issues we assumed upon her.

But, as I learned recently, her real name was Zelma O’Riley.  This information arrived at my doorstep from Diane in Wichita Falls, a relative of Bicycle Annie’s who has been researching her life.  Through an exchange of emails precipitated after she discovered my blog entries, Diane shared with me what she has learned about this well-known, yet unknown, woman who once roamed our streets and garnered a place among local legends.

So, thanks to Diane, I have the opportunity to tell you that Zelma was from Durant, Oklahoma, where her father, John O’Riley was a professor.  John and wife, Mary Catherine Harkins, had five other children including, Lester, Arlee, Zula, Lula, Ora, and Lela.  Mary Catherine was a full-blooded Choctaw Indian who actually came to Durant on the “Trail of Tears.”  The family was purportedly very wealthy, and raised their children quite traditionally.  Zelma, who was very intelligent, moved to Fort Worth for a few years, and then finally to Austin to go to college at UT.   Here she started the publication “Up and Down the Drag” in 1941.

In an edition of “Up and Down” from November, 1947, she wrote what I think are the most prescient words I’ve ever heard:  “It will take a woman to save America.”    She saw herself as this potential savior of the country, and explained that her principal campaign plank was:  preparedness.  The advertisement read, “Vote for Zelma O’Riley for First Woman President of the United States –  she is Irish, she is Indian and she will care for you.”   Also, it is known that as the daughter of a strong Indian woman, one of her main causes throughout her life was Native American rights.

To finance her publication, Zelma sold subscriptions and advertising along the Drag.  But even after she stopped publishing”Up and Down,” she would periodically continued to sell advertising once in a while to fund herself.  It’s possible to believe that she actually intended to publish it again.  Whether her intentions were real or part of a delusion fantasy, many businesses bought “ads” to make her leave them alone.

While stories circulated about her being married to the man of her dreams and his death causing her to go into a depression, Diane says these are not true. She was never married and never had any kids. Her having a house in Hyde Park was also a fiction, although the Blue Bonnet Courts where she appeared to have lived is at the northwestern corner of that neighborhood.

Diane reports that throughout her life, Zelma visited Durant, in addition to Dallas where she stayed with her niece (Diane’s grandmother). Strangely enough, Diane’s uncle went to college in Austin and had many encounters with Zelma although he did not know at the time that he was her great-nephew.  He only knew her as “Bicycle Annie” for years.  Additionally, there are rumors that she attended Law School at one point to understand the judicial system to better “fight the power.”   The law school attendance cannot be verified, but in characterizing Zelma as a pioneer activist, Diane finds it credible.

Apparently, the niece (Diane’s grandmother) knew Zelma suffered from some mental problems and tried to keep up with her without much success.  After her grandmother’s death, Diane found Zelma’s obituary and a few copies of “Up and Down the Drag” among her things, which sparked her interest in this unusual relative.

Zelma passed away April 30, 1991, and is buried in Durant in a Choctaw burial ground.

As troubled and  as unconventional as Leslie ( our once-celebrated local transvestite), Zelma is significant to me because she is a piece of the original weirdness of the Austin I knew and loved.   In sharing our memories of her, Zelma links me to other Austinites who cherish yesterday’s city.  While our Indian Princess could be a bit shocking and disagreeable, she made a unique mark in our psyches, tying us to this unique city.

May Zelma remind us — in these times of antipathy toward the homeless — that even the most unappealing person was once child and part of family that cared about them.  And even if we can’t comprehend their world, they are still human beings, deserving of our compassion and understanding.

I hope our Indian Princess is at home resting in a world of peace and love. Austin sends you prayers and remembrance, Zelma.   And on a personal note, I think you were right about a woman president.

Posted in Great Lessons, Old/New Austin, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Tail-Wagging New Year’s Eves

As the worst year ever finally rolls to an end, I am reminded of another New Year’s Eve two years ago when I ended the year alone for the first time ever, or at least since my marriage. My husband of 44 years had passed away seven months earlier.

I experienced many “firsts” in the year after his passing in May. He had been declining progressively since 2013, but had held it pretty much together while my father endured 18 months in hospitals and nursing centers with me helming the ship of his medical journey.

In what seemed like a seamless transition, my husband took a definitive turn for the worse shortly after my father’s death in 2016. My passing acquaintances with dementia, diabetes, and heart failure evolved into close and personal relationships. Each of his maladies came with its appropriate doctor, who, one by one, joined the circle of my new best friends.

As many care givers can confirm, overseeing someone with these conditions compounded by memory loss requires constant observation and vigilance. Many nights I went to bed, mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted, experiencing a fitful sleep and wondering whether the man next to me would still be breathing in the morning.

One morning, he wasn’t. In fact, I found him on the floor, his heart having stopped suddenly when he was walking to the bathroom. I didn’t even hear him drop. He left this world as most of us would prefer, quickly and painlessly, leaving me to record the ending in my mind’s eye.

In the aftermath, I had much to do. Preparing a memorial, notifying friends and family, getting financial affairs in order, and probating the will kept me occupied. Within months, most everything was done. Adrift in a sea where no one needed me to do anything, be in any particular place, perform any particular task, I’d lost my moorings. What do I do now?

One doesn’t make plans for their widowhood. First of all, you don’t know when that time will come. Second, it smacks of wishful thinking, which feels a bit unseemly. Then, there’s the difficulty of imagining a single life.  Even more difficult was imagining that I might need help.

That was proven in September that year when I hurt my back and couldn’t leave my bed for several days. No one was around to notice that I had to crawl to the bathroom. Asking for help didn’t occur to me. I was, after all, the one who helped others!

A few weeks after that episode, my son in Los Angeles asked me to temporarily shelter his ex-girlfriend who was moving back to Austin and needed a place to stay until she could get on her feet. I liked her very much and welcomed her to my too-quiet house. I figured she might even bring me food if I landed in bed again! But the real bonus to this arrangement was her ownership of two darling little dogs, Pascal – a Maltese – and Einstein, a mix of Maltese and Chihuahua. Since they didn’t have to go to work during the day like their owner, we became devoted companions.

Of the two, Pascal was the Alpha dog – very bossy. An on-line search of Maltese characteristics revealed that this was a common trait of the breed. In fact, one site said that a Maltese can take over a household if you aren’t careful from the beginning. I learned this too late. He kept me on a tight schedule.

Pascal, alpha dog

Specifically, aside from the periodic calls of nature, there were the morning and evening meal times, not to mention my own meal times when I was expected to set aside a few scraps for him. When it came time to walk, Pascal would position himself close to the door with eyes steadily locked on me, demanding action. In the late evenings, he’d leave his sofa perch and I’d find him laying in the hallway, pointedly waiting for me to announce it was crate time (bedtime). And yet, he’d lose all control and run around in happy circles when he saw me bringing his food or reaching for the leash. I always smiled to see such joy in motion!

Einstein was more easy-going, often just following Pascal’s lead. That said, he had one nasty habit stemming, I think, from his Chihuahua genes. Specifically, he was a bit over-protective, barking at people he saw from street side windows or the delivery people on the other side of the front door. Worse, though, was how that trait manifested when my friends, who were just trying to get on his good side, made the mistake of letting their hands get too close to his teeth.  Yikes!


In short, my roost was ruled by my little boarders. But I was okay with that. Having lived under the rule of a relentless and cruel medical regime, I appreciated the lively reign of these shaggy beings and their wagging tails.

So, I wasn’t actually “alone” on New Year’s Eve 2018. The dogs and I spent it together while their owner went out with friends. I decided to watch the movie “Roma,” which was lengthy and required my attention to read the subtitles. I thought I’d simply watch the movie, put the dogs in their crates, and go to bed early. No countdown, no clinking of glasses, no saying “Happy New Year” to another human being. I’d just power through the night.

But then, fireworks rang out in the neighborhood, way before midnight, and the two little dogs clamored to my side, whimpering, shaking, and shivering. Flat-out terrified! With one hand, I caressed Pascal who had firmly planted himself on my lap; with the other arm, I closely embraced Einstein whose little body was just one big shiver.

We stayed like that, glued together, a threesome of beings in reassuring contact, until midnight passed and the fireworks stopped. The movie was good, I think, and whatever I watched afterwards, I’ve long since forgotten. All I wanted was to help these scared little animals cope with the terror of the night.

They didn’t know it, of course, but they were helping me, too. I was finding my own kind of comfort from patting their furry bodies and keeping them close. It was a strange little miracle of caretaking in my household that night.

In the last few months, both of my sweet canine friends passed over that rainbow bridge, succumbing to health problems that weren’t apparent that year. It’s a sadder world without them, but I’ll long remember that night when three disconcerted souls found comfort with each other in that year’s waning hours. May they rest in peace and live on in the hearts of all of us who loved them.

This year couldn’t be more different than 2018. I consider myself a lucky woman to be ringing in the new year with a wonderful human being who will take care of me if I begin to shiver. And, he may even take me for a walk on New Year’s Day! Life can be sweet with the right companion!  Like running-in-circles sweet with tail a-wagging.

Robin & Jeffee


Here’s to a better 2021 as we say good riddance to 2020! We deserve better.  Take care, be safe, and stay healthy, my friends!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

Thanksgiving’s Cornucopia of Remembrances

Like many Americans, I spent the day of Thanksgiving feeling nostalgic for the customary family and food-filled celebration with my extended family and friends. It’s always been my favorite holiday – simple, straight-forward. People cook, people gather, people eat, drink, and enjoy the fellowship. It’s the one time when we organize a “foodathon” to appreciate the company of the loved ones and friends who populate our lives – and remember those who used to be a part of our celebrations. Food, as the sustenance of life that utilizes all of our senses, is a powerful vehicle for steering us down that memory lane.

Long-time readers may remember a previous post in which I explained how my family expects me to make the same chocolate pudding/pecan/whipped cream dessert every year for Thanksgiving.  Knowing how much they look forward to it, I find reason enough to repeat it year after year (although I could blow their socks off with my dump cake). Before me, my maternal grandmother, Madeline, would bring it to our family celebration after she had retired her chief cook apron and applied herself to desserts. She called it “Angel Delight,” and in my recipe book, it is entitled “Madeline’s Angel Delight,” to be forever associated with her. (Can it be a coincidence that I recently found, among my grandmother’s things, a lock of hair in an envelope with my name on it and the additional words, “Angels Hair?”)

I suppose the dessert (not my angelhood) will be associated with me in the long run. Grandmother died in 1984, so our younger family members never knew her or her cooking. But whoever gets the credit, it brings me pleasure to prepare it (even the crust, which is kind of a pain), because it conjures up memories of being in her kitchen where she stood by the stove, always in 1-2 inch heels. She spent her working life in such shoes and she never gave her calf muscles an opportunity to adjust to flats or going barefoot.

Cooking and feeding others was one of her love languages, which I absorbed and learned at her knee where many of my young years were spent. Few places brought me more comfort than her kitchen as I watched her deftly frying chicken, my most favorite food as a kid. In those days, fried chicken was not easily acquired – there were no Kentucky Fried Chicken or Popeyes franchises, and many restaurants did not serve it. Generally, fried chicken was done at home. My mother disliked cooking in general, and chicken, in particular, so I had to wait for Dallas visits with Grandmother, who made it a point to prepare it for me.

My grandmother was not only a willing cook, but a very good cook in the Southern tradition. Her chicken and dumplings made your mouth start watering, even before they made it to the table! Some might say her green beans were too limp, but I learned to love them that way. (Certain people have insinuated that my green beans are over-cooked and limp. . . to which I say, Bah!) I will never understand barely-steamed green beans that crunch when you bite them and taste like chlorophyll! But I’ll always remember the sound as I snapped the long fresh beans into pieces as I helped in Grandmother’s kitchen, getting them ready for real cookin’.

These days, my sister, cousin, and I alternate the hosting of holiday get-togethers between the three of us. We try, in vain, to replicate the 40-year tradition of gathering at my aunt and uncle’s house on Thanksgiving. It was a rollicking affair with all of our family members and my uncle’s family, which outnumbered ours by about three to one. Just as soon as I learned all my uncle’s cousins’ names, they had hordes of offspring and I had to learn more, or, at least, remember to whom they belonged! While my aunt would make the turkey, dressing, gravy, and bread, she would coordinate with the rest of us to bring desserts, salads, and vegetables, usually the same ones year after year depending on their popularity, e.g., Angel Delight.

Now that my aunt has passed on, one of us often tries to make her dressing, which for us is the gold standard of what good cornbread dressing should be. Invariably, the resulting dressing will become a point of discussion. Did we get it right this time? What does it lack? Too much sage? Generally, however, the dressing appraisal boils down to a single factor: whether it’s too dry or not. Sad to say that those of us who really care about dressing are dwindling. Only two or three of us even remember that it was Grandmother’s dressing before my aunt took over from her.

So many associations and memories are part of Thanksgiving. Among the unforgettable ones was the year I showed up and my uncle expressed his unfiltered disappointment with my apparel. He said, “I was hoping you’d wear that sweater again, the one where your nipples showed through.” My aunt overheard and was, naturally, horrified. But I just laughed to cover a sob with the realization that he was beginning to lose contact with his internal editor. Meanwhile, I’m still pondering which sweater he was remembering so fondly.

This year, my son and daughter-in-law invited me to share Thanksgiving at their home with everyone in masks (even the four-year-old!) and wide-opened windows. It was a first for all of us, but it was very nice. And while it didn’t conjure up a lifetime of associations for me, I felt the love and ties that bind us as family. And that’s plenty to be thankful for.

That will be one of the lessons I’ve learned under the tutelage of this pandemic – how things don’t have to be all or nothing. A nice meal can be as good as a feast. Phone calls can be enough to keep the family ties taut. And the many memories of Thanksgivings pasts and hopes for the ones to come, will sustain us. One thing is certain: none of us will ever take for granted our good fortune when we are able to reunite again.

Looking forward to 2021, I want everyone to be on notice that Angel Delight will make a triumphal return to our Thanksgiving table. And, just maybe, a big bowl of limp green beans to feed our ever-lovin’ southern souls.



Posted in Great Lessons, Memories, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

I Want a Senator who Stands with Women

During a recent coronavirus briefing, Donald Trump gave a shout-out to Ghislaine Maxwell, wishing her well, as she sits in jail, charged with procuring young girls for a sex-trafficking ring, grooming them to be raped by influential men. “Why, why,” I hear decent people asking, “is Trump still this country’s president?”

The answer is simple. He’s supported by Republicans, both men, and, sadly, women. Some of these Rs are U.S. Senators, and earlier this year, these senators (with the Romney exception) couldn’t find their way to remove this president after he tried to obtain election dirt on Joe Biden, his most-feared rival, by bribing the Ukranian president. As if this were perfectly acceptable for a U.S. President to do! No doubt, they wouldn’t vote to remove him if he shot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue.

Sadly, two of Trump’s most devoted enablers are from Texas, a state that in modern times elected men of principles at least twice – Lloyd Bentsen and Ralph Yarborough. And let’s go ahead and count L.B.J. as a third, despite the Ballot Box 13 incident. Now, Texas is represented by a couple of Trumpist toadies, one who is incurably obnoxious, the other, a bit more measured (which is probably more dangerous).

Ralph Yarborough

Lloyd Bentsen

The obnoxious one is Ted Cruz, of course, whose name will appear in the thesaurus as a synonym for that adjective one of these days. But I never expected Ted Cruz to be anything but a slimy, self-promoting weasel. During our coinciding stints of employment at the Texas Attorney General’s office, I can’t recall that a single positive thing was ever said about him, just many negative ones.

John Cornyn was another matter. As Attorney General, he seemed like a decent person, even if I didn’t agree with every policy and legal position. Many of the other assistant attorneys general agreed, finding him to be a Republican who hadn’t swallowed the Kool-Aid of rabid, knee-jerk partisanship. But, as Senator, he proved himself as a chameleon who became as power-hungry as so many other Republicans in Washington. Upon arrival, he didn’t just drink the Kool-Aid, he started chugging it.

As anyone who has been a regular voter understands, buyer’s remorse often sets in after a period of performance that fails to meet expectations. John Cornyn’s lapdog performance, standing next to Mitch McConnell, grinning and nodding while in support of Trump and his heartless policies, should be particularly distasteful for many buyers, especially considering that everyone thought he looked oh-so senatorial.

My opinion as a Democrat may not count, but I’m beyond ashamed by his political representation. Moreover, in the wake of the death of my own father, who never gave me cause to be embarrassed, I’ve often thought about the feelings of daughters with fathers who support this molester-in-chief. If I were one of John Cornyn’s daughters, I would be mortified to see him standing in front of the world voicing support for – or even tacitly supporting – a man who bragged about grabbing a woman’s genitals, as if they were playthings for his personal enjoyment. Few men get a national stage to be their daughter’s hero and tell the world that such behavior is despicable and no man should be “handling” anyone’s daughters. John Cornyn missed that opportunity. Instead, he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with a man who admits that he’d like to date his own daughter.

I also feel sorry for John Cornyn’s wife. Many of the same reasons apply. My husband’s embrace of Donald Trump would make me wonder who I’d been embracing during our long marriage. Every day I’d be wondering how he had surrendered the principles he seemingly lived by as a judge and Attorney General to serve as a yes-man for Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, two men lacking any empathy or respect for the norms of fair play and decency. Living with a spineless spouse who supports a man who admittedly assaults women would be revolting.

And, I am saddened to think how being his mother would feel. It’s in a mother’s arms and at her knee that a man learns about unconditional love, good and bad, what makes a woman cry, what brings her joy. Often, her pride in him is the sole factor giving him the confidence to go out, take his place in society, and do well while doing good. Most sons seek to justify that pride. I imagine her disappointment as her once-commendable son shredded any patina of decency, supporting the head of a criminal enterprise, molester of women, and friend of sex traffickers (Jeffrey Epstein and Maxwell). I can imagine her sadly thinking, wherever she may be, “That’s not the son I raised.”

During this era of Trumpification, many of us toss and turn in our sleep, but it’s a wonder that John Cornyn can sleep at all, having thrown out his pride and that of his family’s and constituents like ballast from the little boat carrying him on his power-trip. Also tossed overboard are this country’s norms, institutions, and respectability in the world of nations.

If only we could elect Cornyn’s November election challenger, Mary Jennings (“MJ”) Hegar, an Air Force combat veteran and recipient of the Purple Heart, a daughter, a wife, and a mother.

She could help us wake up and recover from this national nightmare. She would have the guts to call out a man who assaults and disparages women, no matter what his position. And let me throw this out: she’d be one of the last people to allow Vladimir Putin to influence our election or put bounties on our soldiers’ heads. In short, instead of simpering in some corner trying to win favor with political masters, MJ has the balls to stand up and say, “No way!”

I will not insult all the good and decent men in this world by making some caustic comment suggesting that only women can right the wrongs of this world. But when our Senator is a man who can’t even lift up his own rifle at those wrongs, we need to give a strong woman our votes. Undoubtedly, MJ Hegar is better equipped to serve as our Senator than either of the men currently serving themselves in Washington.

Posted in Politics, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Scars and Detours of this Pandemic

Yesterday, as I traveled down one of Austin’s neighborhood streets that does double duty as an east-west thoroughfare, I impulsively detoured from my route home. Some quirk of the mind summoned me to deviate a few blocks south to pass by a house my family occupied for a number of years after moving from Northeast Austin. From there, I decided to retrace the steps I took on my daily walk to Bryker Woods Elementary School where I attended the second semester of sixth grade, having moved in the middle of the school year.

The detour, in essence, was a trip down memory lane, or at least, an attempt to see what actual memories still remained along that lane. At the former residence, I noted that much was the same except for new windows partially installed and a proliferating landscape. Along the route to school, I vaguely recalled that I made my younger sister walk some distance behind me. Could I really have been so mean?

In vain, I strived to find familiar sights. I tried remembering what that sixth grader was thinking as she trudged along the street followed by her third-grade sister at a distance between “too close” and “not too far.” Was she dreading the day ahead thinking about the new friends she was slow to make and missing her old friends, her Girl Scout troop, and the school she had attended for over five years? Did she notice the irony that the name of the street she walked and the school she missed was the same? Harris. Was she wishing she didn’t wear glasses, had prettier hair, owned cooler clothes?

As I struggled mightily to reconnect with my younger self, I realized that this sudden nostalgia was an aspect of pandemic thinking. Many of us in isolation, no doubt, do more than take our temperatures and test our ability to hold our breaths for ten seconds. With so much time coupled with fear, I often find myself in these reflective moods, seeking keys to who I was and who I am now, pulling at existential threads, pondering my mortality, and wondering why we need bucket lists when the best thing in the world is just waking up healthy and hugging a loved one.

So my desire to reconnect continued as I surveyed the elementary school grounds that, of course, had appeared so much bigger in my memory. I noticed that portable buildings occupied the area of the kickball diamond where we used to play during recess. Strangely, I sensed my younger self the strongest on that missing playground. Waiting her turn to kick, she felt painfully self-conscious and awkward, hyper-aware of her failure to fit in with these girls.

In my mind’s eye, I could still see Ellen, one of my classmates, who was always the pitcher (for some reason) in the field’s center where she’d do a little dance as she sang, “There she was just a walkin’ down the street,” before she moved forward and let the ball unroll from her arm. I had a girl crush on this natural beauty – tall, thin, and blond with an animated personality. In short, she seemed everything I was not.

In comparison to Ellen’s coolness, my younger self was somewhat nerdy (had that word existed), overly serious, and inhibited. She no longer sensed the existence of that extroverted young girl who had lived in that northeast Austin neighborhood surrounded by friends, enjoying all kinds of play and activities. The result  was that after a couple of years of relatively loneliness, she turned inward — surrendering that free-spirited self of her past.  She developed coping skills —  pretending that she was someone who was liked and fit in. Eventually, she began to believe in her act and was able to reanimate at least part of her authentic self.

But, unlike the children living through this pandemic, she wasn’t scarred by having to deal with a brand new world with life or death in the balance. She was not closeted away from others, from grandparents, the library, or the parks. She was not taught to fear contact with others – it would be many years until the “stranger danger” mentality needed to be taught.

I fear to think how plague-thinking will impact the children today, living in isolation with only parents and other siblings, feeling the world they knew dismantling piece by piece. Where does a third-grader, like my sweet grandson, find the psychological clutch to downshift into this smaller world without stalling or ruining the transmission altogether? Will these children be able to recover from this detour from their childhood, regain their footing and trust the world again?

We have to ask these questions because this is a crisis like no other in recent memory. It’s different because it’s so all-encompassing – not just a hurricane on the coast or even the World Trade Center attack on 9/11 in New York. “No, this affects all of us and all the things closest to us: our health and safety, our children and parents, our ability to move freely and sleep soundly, our ability to go to work and send our children to school,” says Charles Blow in his New York Times opinion column. And unfortunately, he notes, we have a president who can’t be trusted to show a modicum of competence, or the ability to at least partially quell our unease and foreboding.  Trump’s handling of this episode guarantees that fear and panic generated by this pandemic will leave scars etched in the American psyche.

This makes sense to me. I know about scars, although mine are relatively small and personal, especially when compared to those chiseled by the Great Depression and the polio, tuberculosis, and other health epidemics. But, indeed, this experience and the alchemy of loss, loneliness, and fear will create wounds that will stain our days long after the pandemic ends. As we are whipsawed around on this leaderless train, all we can do is hold on … hold on to our sanity, keep up social distancing, hug our children close, and hold on to our belief in a light at the end of the tunnel. Safe travels, my friends.

The kickball pitcher, Ellen, and I reconnected years later as adults and she became one of my best friends. May she rest in peace.  Ellen Roberta Bradley, June 5, 1953 — January 21, 2016.



Posted in Great Lessons | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

If there is one thing I’ve discovered during this pandemic, it’s that we love our toilet paper. In fact, for those of us lucky enough to survive this (please stay home, folks), I believe that the enduring symbol of these times won’t be the social isolation, grocery store swarms, or the incoherent ramblings of our Commander in Chaos. No, I think it will be the lowly, unassuming roll of toilet paper.

Like so many of us, I have had a long and personal relationship with toilet paper. And yet, I’ve never given it the love it deserves for its contribution to my quality of life. As one of those things I’ve always had access to, it’s been easy to take it for granted. After a recent scare involving our water supply thanks to zebra mussels, I often marvel at the miracle of being able to summon potable water from my faucets, but I haven’t been similarly appreciative of toilet paper.

Even while camping as a Girl Scout, toilet paper was always available. We might have built latrines – digging big holes and lashing together poles to fashion a primitive tripod with a seat (because we weren’t up for squatting). But we always brought toilet paper – no making do with leaves or other primitive modes of getting the job done.

Then, there were the days as teenage girls when we literally wasted toilet paper, getting together to “paper” a guy’s house, or better said, his parent’s house. We’d get rolls of toilet paper and in the dark of night, throw them up in the tree branches to create looping streamers when the roll fell back.  What better way to let the young object of our affection know that some girls had a big crush on him? Waste a few rolls of toilet paper was the answer we came up with! Of course, today I think of the clean-up required and wince at our thoughtlessness (juvenile delinquency). But, it was a thing back then.

When I lived in Peru – I actually gave toilet paper a passing thought. But it wasn’t the lack of it, rather its disturbing characteristics, being only slightly softer than tissue paper and colored in a strange magenta hue. The good thing, however, was that houses generally came with bidets, so the uncivilized toilet paper could usually be eschewed in favor of the very civilized washing facilities. After 18 months of residence in the country, the bidet was the one thing I wanted to bring with me back to Texas, even where the toilet paper was high quality. Remember when we needed Mr. Whipple to remind us not to get overwhelmed by the softness of the Charmin in his grocery store?

So, this pandemic has forced me to contemplate what might happen if we were to run out of toilet paper. I’ve heard recent stories of people cutting up t-shirts, using them as toilet paper, flushing them down the toilet, and thereby clogging up sewer lines. Just. Don’t. Go. There. I have a friend who is contemplating some kind of rag solution, but is smart enough not to risk clogging up the system. Instead, he is toying with the idea of disposing the used ones in a pail like we used in the BDD days – before disposable diapers. If you had babies back then, you’ll undoubtedly remember the diaper pail, a lidded container with water and Pine Sol for tossing soiled diapers until it was time to run them through the washing machine.  You knew it was time when, upon opening, the wafting fragrance was more toilet bowl than pine forest.

But it’s nice to see how this love for toilet paper is bringing us closer to our friends and neighbors as we share in this looming crisis. On Next Door, one of my southwest Austin neighbors has written that he could show us how to use only one square of toilet paper at a time. Thankfully, he decided not to post the video, but I feel he would probably share it in a private message if asked. That alone brings us closer.

Similarly, as a public characterized by political divisiveness, it’s refreshing to find one thing we can all agree on.  We are a people divided into carnivores vs. vegetarians, MAGA hat owners vs. Obama lovers, dog vs. cat lovers, vaccinated vs. unvaccinated, Apple vs. Windows users, but we can ALL agree that toilet paper is a good thing.  Of course, we may have differences in preferred brands, but ultimately, when the need exists, the brand is negotiable.

And, by the way, we probably shouldn’t blame our neighbors for hoarding and, thereby, creating this shortage.  I urge you to read the explanation for the shortage as detailed in this article from Medium.

Basically, it explains that factories are hindered on the production end by the sudden shift from businesses and schools needing large amounts of industrial toilet paper on those big spools to residential consumers needing paper in little rolls, which works much better in our bathrooms. So there’s a mismatch of supply and demand for the two products, exacerbated by the fact that few factories make both types. The good news is we can go back to loving our neighbors; bad news, the mismatch isn’t easy to fix.

Right now, I’m glad that my bathroom is well-stocked with toilet paper. After all, I’m pretty much alone here so the metrics of my usage are pretty low. That said, I drink a lot of liquid, some to stay awake, some to quell my rising panic. But even if I were to run out, let me show you the one roll I will not use:

Preserving this roll is very important because it’s simply too wonderful to finally see Donald Trump’s visage somewhere that makes sense. Feel free to download my picture for your screensavers. After all, we need to take our pleasures wherever we can find them these days. Stay safe, my friends!

Posted in Great Lessons | Tagged , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

The Unpardonable Occupant of our White House

On February 18, 2020, the current occupant of our White House, Donald Trump, granted clemency to eleven individuals who – except for two drug offenders – had been convicted of crimes involving fraud, bribery, tax evasion and other sorts of corruption. You know, the best kind of crimes, as I’m sure Trump and his history would confirm. (The only one he might like better is an assault on women’s genitalia.)

I’m not saying Individual 1 didn’t have the right to issue those pardons and commutations. The president’s power in this regard is what they call “unfettered.” Even so, most Americans expect some kind of fettering by a deliberative review process that includes the Department of Justice, the Pardon Attorney, and others in the executive branch.

Needless to say, since it’s Trump we’re talking about, none of that happened here. All eleven recipients had an inside connection or were promoted on Fox News. Some were vocal Trump supporters, campaign contributors, or, in one case, had a son who partied with Donald Jr. Connections is the name of the game with Trump.

As for names, Trump granted relief to Bernard B. Kerik, a long-time friend, Edward DeBartolo, former 49er’s football team owner who hosted a pre-inauguration party, Rod Blagojevich, former Illinois governor and onetime “Celebrity Apprentice” contestant, and the infamous investor Mike Millken, championed both by Rudy Giuliani, and the billionaire who hosted a recent $10 million Trump fund-raiser. Even three obscure women serving time on drug or fraud charges received pardons based on the recommendation of Alice Marie Johnson. Remember Ms. Johnson? She was pardoned by Trump in 2018 after Kim Kardashian West spoke to Trump on her behalf. Ms. Johnson served here as a “pardon whisperer,” some have said.

No, the normal pardons process wasn’t even considered by Trump, the man who claims to know everything. It doesn’t matter that groups of Americans were harmed by their crimes and might look askance at their escape from the consequences.

I can’t think of a better contrast to Trump’s approach to the clemency process than President Obama’s Clemency Initiative, ensuing from his keen and oft-stated interest in criminal justice reform. By the end of his term and the initiative, Obama had granted commuted sentences to 1,705 prisoners serving extremely long sentences compared to today’s standards, mostly for drug crimes. In fact, half of all federal inmates are drug offenders. And, of course, they are mostly poor and/or minorities.

But what really differentiates Obama’s approach to clemency compared to Trump’s is the process. First and foremost, none of these individuals had connections or high-profile champions. Instead, the inmates needed to file petitions for commutation or a reduced sentence. The Office of the Pardon Attorney and others in the Department of Justice then reviewed those petitions based on the following criteria, requiring that inmates:

1) be serving a sentence that would have been substantially lower if convicted of the same offense(s) today;
2) be a non-violent, low-level offender without significant ties to large scale criminal organizations, gangs or cartels
3) have served at least 10 years of their prison sentence;
4) have no criminal history;
5) have demonstrated good conduct in prison; and,
6) have no history of violence prior to or during their current term of imprisonment.

Based on these criteria, the Department of Justice was able to provide 16,776 recommendations to the White House, including all of those serving life sentences for drug offenses by the end of Obama’s term in January 2017.

This remarkable number was achieved through the efforts of many individuals both in and outside of government. Because tens of thousands of prisoners could be eligible, non-governmental agencies and private attorneys were asked to help with the Clemency Project 2014, as it was called, to find and present the best cases. Their efforts would be pro bono (unpaid).

Responding to this request were the Criminal Justice Section of the American Bar Association, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Federal Defenders, the ACLU, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums, as well as individuals active within those organizations and other lawyers wishing to participate. Ultimately, 4,000 volunteers found this project worthy of their unpaid time. Altogether, they processed 36,000 applications and represented 894 of the total 1,705 inmates whose sentences were commuted by President Obama. The American Bar Association believes that this might be the largest pro bono project in American history.

At the receiving end of these petitions and recommendations was W. Neil Eggleston, then White House counsel whose objective was to make a recommendation to President Obama on every petition. This became an increasingly pressing goal near the end of Obama’s presidency, when petitions increased dramatically. Accordingly, Eggleston’s own staff – which was normally involved in selecting judges – was freed up to help in the administration’s waning months. Additionally, lawyers elsewhere in the White House volunteered, even though it meant working nights and weekends. “I think this project was enormously rewarding for the lawyers in the White House,” Eggleston has said, noting that many thanked him for the opportunity to participate.

The most committed to the cause was, of course, the highest-ranking attorney in the White House, President Obama. He would call Eggleston to his office to debate the details of individual petitions and, during his busy last week as president, Obama made time to review and grant 540 commutations.

In regard to the President’s commitment, Eggleston tells about the occasion in April 2016, when seven clemency recipients (some from past administrations) visited the White House. They had been invited to speak with staff about their experiences after prison and how to improve the justice system. Around noon, however, Obama walked into the room and invited them all to lunch. Over an hour or so, he heard their stories. Explaining that an hour is a huge amount of time for the president of the United States, Eggleston told an interviewer, “He cared a lot personally about this project.”

Like all of our greatest presidents, Obama is a decent man who brought compassion, principle, humanity, and a sense of justice to the presidency. His clemency project is just one example. And while it was intended to benefit the 1,705 inmates who received the commuted sentences, there is no doubt that the attorneys and volunteers involved will long remember the parts they played in this effort. After all, how often in life do you get the chance to make such an enormous difference, not only in the lives of men and women, but also in affirming the hallmark value of our country – justice for all?

Sadly, Donald Trump would never understand this. His shortcomings as a leader of this country are, of course, well known by now. He is nothing more than an uncouth hustler who conned his way into the White House. As he pardons his friends and his friends’ friends, he continues to show how unworthy he is.

Trump is America’s unpardonable president. May we never repeat this mistake.


Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments