Austin Invaded by Zika Snakes!!

Zika Snakes?  Let me explain, I am a desperate woman using desperate measures to keep more people from moving here.  You see, last month, I read this headline that provoked me to sputter out my coffee: “Austin Metro Surpasses 2 Million Residents.”   Talk about a sucker punch of reality, a nail in the coffin – Old Austin is officially no more!  We need Zika snakes.

When my first-grade self was among Austin’s 186,545 residents in 1960, we were a virtual hamlet! Everyone potentially, if not in fact, could have known everyone else! Back then, no one spoke of the “Austin Metro,” and even if they did, it would not have meant an area including all of four counties.  Literally and figuratively, Austin was Austin, Round Rock was Round Rock, and ne’er the twain shall meet. Same for Bastrop, Buda, Kyle, Leander, etc.


But, now, with two million people, we’ve blended and merged into one big glob of humanity. Even while Round Rock is technically still Round Rock and Cedar Park, Leander, and Pflugerville still have their city governments and long histories of independence, they’ve become those neighbors you can hear through the walls!

You folks in Houston might snicker over a mere two million residents. But you were ready to expand — you have roads for your millions!! New Yorkers might also wonder at my distress but NYC has a public transportation system we would die for. Also, both Houston and NYC are peopled with big spenders who dreamed yuuge and built yuuge, which, in turn, fueled public spending on the infrastructure necessary to support those dreams.


In contrast, the Austinites of the past were folks who fretted about losing our small town quality of life, hoping against hope that no one else would discover this little jewel of a city and start dreaming big, much less yuuuge. The powers-that-were joined hands, sang Kumbayah, and adopted the time-honored principle of “if-we-don’t-build, people-won’t-come.” So, we didn’t build and yet . . . the people came.  Given Austin’s complete lack of foresight and failure to embrace growth, where did we go right? Or more pointedly, what does a town have to do to make them stop moving here?  Create the threat of Zika snakes?

You’d think we’d done enough. Haven’t we guaranteed a nightmare of intra-city travel for years to come by restricting transportation options? We had organized groups blocking the construction of new roads and thoroughfares, refusing to settle for anything less than the 1950s integrity and tranquility of their neighborhoods.  We relied on peculiar routes to travel east-west, requiring drivers to weave through neighborhoods and stop frequently at lights and stop signs.


And we haven’t gone crazy building big roads for north-south transit, either. Basically, we only have two major thoroughfares, one being Interstate 35, which is the major trade route linking South Texas with Northern Minnesota. Most of the time it’s packed with truckers, tourists and business travelers waving as they pass the Capitol on their way elsewhere, competing for valuable road space with local commuters or the downtown noon crowd seeking to eat lunch on Riverside. In fact, the segment between Riverside Drive and Dean Keeton Blvd. (26th St.) has been ranked at 10th place on the list of worst highway bottlenecks in America. The other spots, just to give you a frame of reference, are in Los Angeles and New York.

Imagine our excitement when a state highway in far east Austin was announced as a project that would serve as an alternative route for pass-through traffic, truckers in particular, thereby leaving I-35 for the locals! But, those hopes were dashed when it was built as a toll road with very high tolls for trucks. The truckers did some comparison shopping and decided to stay on the free interstate.  Back to square one.

Our other north-south thoroughfare – Loop 1 or Mopac – ain’t no great shakes, either, plagued by the increasing congestion courtesy of our neighbors to the north, residents of Leander, Cedar Park, etc. Some argue that those communities wouldn’t have grown, but an extension of Mopac.  Hence, reverting back to Austin’s no-build-no-grow philosophy, we shouldn’t even think about extending the road southward! But there’s no stopping growth now.  With or without the direct highway extension,  Austin’s southern outskirts are just as fecund as their northern counterparts and any extension, if it ever happens,  is years away.  It’s the Austin way.

Now, with all this vehicular traffic, you might surmise that we have a new miraculous public transportation system in the works. Wrong! Austin has done a great job of sticking with the bus system of the 1950s, although we’ve added and extended routes and bought some bigger (bendable) buses. But, along with blocking road construction, we are champions at shooting down anything sensible like light rail.  The reasons for opposing the painstakingly developed plans of feasibility-study committees are numerous:  too expensive, unpopular routes, unwelcome development around stations, reduction in car lanes, etc.  Austin did approve a little commuter train system (Metrorail) connecting our northern outskirts to a station east of downtown, but only because it runs on existing train lines in the middle of the highway, thereby having no impact on neighborhoods or existing infrastructure. Unfortunately, its goal of reducing congestion on Mopac, hasn’t panned out — ridership is still less than stellar and traffic on Mopac is still bad.  It won’t be selling Austinites on any future rail projects.


As little as our transportation woes work to stop the flow of new folks, could it be our affordable housing that keeps drawing them in? But, wait, affordable housing went by the wayside years ago!  Unlike our transportation system, however, the housing debacle is not a self-inflicted wound. Austinites blame Californians for ruining what was once an affordable housing market. Sadly, those West Coast denizens discovered our city and began transplanting themselves in droves, exiting their crazy-high housing market and plopping down their exorbitant returns for Austin houses – they paid cash for asking prices or more! Naturally, they drove the whole Austin housing market skyward, along with our property taxes, making it hard for even long-established residents to stay in their homes. Minorities were driven from historic residence east of I-35 as all properties in Austin became hot targets for development.  And developers who followed in the Californians’ wake, found their bliss in building expensive condos for downtown living.  Judging by the unflagging changes in our skyline, there are people who love this concept and will pay through the nose for it!


As I ponder what we did “right” to bring the hordes to our rolling hills, I wonder whether our lack of a professional sports team discouraged any significant number of folks.  It would seem like a real shortcoming that we only have college teams, primarily the University of Texas Longhorns football team, to inspire any kind of zaniness and zealous devotion. Moreover, more often than not, even that football frenzy is generally short-lived as the team fails to live up to its hype.  And if anyone were to move here thinking that one day we’d host a pro team, they are probably gone by now, realizing that Austin isn’t going to pick up the check for any team’s sports arena. As our decisions on mass transit prove, we simply don’t do big projects (with the exception of a medical school as a joint venture with a Catholic hospital that won’t provide female reproductive health services, but that’s another story).

A corollary shortcoming is that without a pro team and that big arena, Austin isn’t a regular stop for the big touring musical acts. While we have lots of venues where our great local bands can perform for little more than tips, and some nice theaters that are largely dominated by touring nostalgia acts, it makes you wonder why someone doesn’t call Austin out for calling itself the “Music Capital of the World.” Two ACL festival weekends and one week of SXSW a year isn’t enough to justify that claim, if you ask me. Although it was a good decision to abandon our former moniker, “The Friendly City,” lest it be interpreted as a welcome mat, but was “Music Capital of the World” the most logical replacement? Wouldn’t it be more honest just to leave it at “The Former Home of the Armadillo,” which partly explains how this music thing got started?  How about “The City that Tokes with Willie?”


But if I had to choose another city nickname, why not put our potential new neighbors on notice that Austin’s pollen levels from trees and grasses are known to be among some of the highest in the country. How about “Allergy Capital of the World,” or “Kleenex Capital of the World?” New neighbors should be aware that we sneeze, cough, and suffer from Cedar Fever in the winter and the infamous “Austin Croup,” in the spring. We also have long, hot summers made muggy with high humidity, which often produces strains of mold that cause even more allergy suffering. To put it in perspective, Austin has way more miserable allergy sufferers than musicians, venues, or concerts put together.

So, spread the word before our population reaches the three million mark: Austin’s not an easy place in which to reside, drive, and even breathe, and it’s not going to get any better soon, if ever.

In the meantime, let’s borrow an idea from Donald Trump: Build a wall around Austin! Tourists may enter to visit, students may come to study, but moving vans or U-Hauls full of anything beyond what’s need for one dorm room cannot enter.  Waivers will be granted for folks with expertise in needed fields, such as traffic management and mass transit.  And don’t worry about the expense, my fellow citizens.  We’ll get California to pay for it! After all, they OWE us . . . big time!!

As Trump would say, “What losers! They can’t even keep their own people from leaving!!”And Trump, as usual, would be wrong.  Old Austin is the real loser.

But until that wall gets built, let’s keep spreading the Zika snake rumors.

Posted in Old/New Austin | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Enough is Enough!!

I can only watch so much campaign coverage before I feel the need to think about cleaning and decluttering. Must be Trump’s constant patter about how rich he is and how much stuff he owns that reminds me of how we Americans embrace excess. We eat too much food, drive urban assault vehicles, fill our closets beyond capacity, and simply stated, buy too much stuff. We delight in sales, discounts, and our credit cards, wearing out Amazon’s “one click” button, especially now that it saves us the trouble of actually walking into a store.Amazon

Despite impoverishing us and burdening us with debt-ridden angst, Consumerism seems to be our one true religion and preaching thrift is heresy.  Malls are houses of worship and our residences, which keep getting larger, are warehouses for our bounty. Storage sheds dot the city landscapes because our attics are full!

Attics, in fact, are no longer the romantic places of repose for grandmothers’ love letters or grandfathers’ military memorabilia. More likely, we climb up to find Christmas decorations we no longer have energy to put up at Christmas, old lamps that may have value as antiques (we must look into that!), boxes of college papers, old typewriters, and the toys of our grown children’s youth.  All are testaments to our failings in Possessions Management 101.


Who would have believed that our own failings could spawn thriving businesses? Container Store. Need I say more? Such success for this kind of store would have been unthinkable in the 50s when most people had two or three pairs of shoes, a few dresses, a couple of suits, and maybe a week’s worth of casual clothes and underwear.

And when did people start amassing collections? Not just a few trinkets and knickknacks, but significant items claiming massive storage space in our lives, be they frogs, owls, salt and pepper shakers, beanie babies, antique dolls, political buttons, etc. I used to consider myself immune to such mania, but with the demise of a couple of family members, I, too, succumbed,  as heir to a collection weighted with nostalgia and beauty that would be an absolute crime to dismantle or leave to strangers!

From my collection

Yet, I’ve moved others and myself enough times to realize that we are suffocating ourselves with stuff. As I dispersed the items in my mother’s, and then, my father’s houses upon their final moves, I made vows to make it easier for my kids upon my departure. (Let me apologize, in advance, to my sons for bra and panties drawers. I like my lingerie, but I urge you to just toss them en masse – I promise not to hide any money or other valuables among them.)

Generally, as I make these vows, I’m reminded of reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond in my college days. Although he made a compelling case that the only free individuals are those who can carry all of their belongings on their back (or building them as needed when you go to live at Walden Pond), I had few possessions to worry about then. Accordingly, his philosophy was relegated to the good-idea-someday department that has since been renamed as the wish-I-had-listened department.

Some advice has been a bit more motivating — Sarah Ban Breathnach’s daybook called Simple Abundance, for example. Her collection of 365 essays was written to help women find their authentic selves by uniting spirituality with lifestyle. Breathnach encourages the keeping of gratitude journals and theorizes that the more we divest ourselves of things we don’t need, the more room we create room for abundance, i.e., good things, coming our way. At the time I read the book, the concept of “abundance” seemed a bit vague as reward systems go, but it sounded good enough to try.  Simple abundance eluded me, however, as my efforts were probably too minimal.

Another approach that made a lot of sense to me was espoused by a French woman in an article (which I can’t find now).  She explained closet management from an economic perspective.  A closet, she said, is real estate that has a certain dollar value (proportion of total square footage multiplied by amount of rent or mortgage payment). With that number in mind, the author suggested ruthlessly analyzing the items in a closet. If any piece of clothing is not “working” to earn its keep on your property, get rid of that non-performer! Based on this advice, I removed a few items from the closet, admittedly, extending way too many second chances to some slackers.


Although I’d find it hard to do, the most unique approach to attacking consumerism and its attendant storage problem was devised by David Bruno in The 100 Thing Challenge.  As an athletic and adventurous guy, he quite sensibly motivated himself with a decluttering scheme as something like a trek to the mountaintop and chose the number 100 as a “Goldilocks” number (neither too few or too many). But paring down to 100 things was just the first part – Bruno set a goal of remaining below 100 items for a year, strictly justifying any new purchases or gifts by trading it out for something else in his inventory. For me, this method of decluttering is too much like a 1200 calorie diet! I’d surely tire of maintaining that  inventory and depriving myself of chocolate cake, I mean, something new that really caught my fancy . . . even if only a year.

The latest option I considered in my decluttering studies is Marie Kondo’s NYT best-selling The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, claimed by many as the bible of deacquisitioning. The method she prescribes in her little turquoise tome boils down to keeping only those possessions that produce a spark of joy. Yes, spark of joy.  I bought the Kindle “executive summary,” which didn’t spark an ah-ha moment, much less help me grasp the sparking joy part, so I’ve yet to jump on the Kondo bandwagon. Of course, maybe if I read the whole book, I’d be raving about it. Maybe I’d find more inspiration in her mandate to respect your possessions by eschewing hangers and closets and, instead, using Japanese folding techniques and origami-like drawer organization. Perhaps I’d truly appreciate that my clothes “feel” squashed in the closet and prefer being folded like flags and filed in a drawer. Maybe.folding

As one who has studied these various clearing-out methodologies, I have surprisingly made merely a modicum of progress in my own efforts. Maybe next, I need to read Jane Saruwatari’s book, Behind the Clutter, wherein she explores the psychology of retaining our possessions long past their expiration dates. Is it our way of holding on to the past, Jane?

Or maybe, as David Bruno theorizes, we keep buying (and storing) in a quixotic quest to bridge the space between who we are and who we would like to be. As he says,

We can pursue the dream life of American-style consumerism, but only by relentlessly getting more possessions and using them to try to be more than we actually are. We must keep it up, because they will always fail to make us completely satisfied. We must continually ask our things to make us happy.

Yes, there must be complicated explanations behind our fervor as consumers and low-grade hoarders. While our parents could blame the Depression, we baby boomers did not fear scarcity and lack of buying power. Unscarred by the need for austerity, did we succumb instead to an affluenza that was the logical byproduct of our parents experiences? In other words, did our parents indulge us because of the tendency of every generation to give to the succeeding ones the childhoods they wished for themselves?

The bottom line, I think, is that we need to employ deep honesty in dealing with our consumerism and de-stuffing our houses, storage sheds, and attics. I know it will take a commitment that I’ve yet to master, but I intend to keep trying. In so doing, maybe I can conjure up some sparks of joy, find the simple abundance of enough, and hear the sweet sound of waves on Walden Pond lapping the shores and drowning out the voice of Donald Trump!


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Tis the Season for Fearing

Writer’s note: In case you feel like I’m repeating myself, you subscribers may remember a post by the same title that I published here last month.  For reasons that you would not really care about, I removed it from the website.  Now, I am returning the post to its rightful place, but in a much shortened (and editors would say “tightened”)  rendition.


As we shift into the nitty-gritty phase of election season 2016, I wonder how many more belches of fear and hate will emanate from the Republican fear-generating factory. The fact that fear sells so well saddens me. What does it say about our society where so many thrive on fear and boost the poll numbers of Donald Trump, for instance, with every hateful abomination he spews.

Here’s an idea: if you are among the fear-aholics, why not find terror in the governmental gridlock that prevents any efforts to reduce gun violence, respond to climate change, reduce income inequality, address failing infrastructure, or even sustain progress in ensuring civil, voting, privacy, and women’s rights?

Instead of demagoguery, wouldn’t it be much more productive to focus on Congress’s incapacity to address America’s real problems, which have little or nothing to do with ISIS, the Chinese, Russians, Syrian refugees, or border-crossing Mexicans? The current governmental dysfunction makes me fear that my grandchildren will inherit a country that can only remember its greatness with nostalgia. I fear America will be a country that has abandoned its governing principles because our Constitution can’t handle the job.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Constitution provides no easy fixes to an impasse caused by a Congress that sits on its hands. In his book, “The Royalist Revolution,” author Eric Nelson posits that our founding fathers, given their experience with an elected Parliament, sought to control the legislative branch with an uncrowned king called a president, i.e., a mixed monarchy. The president-king would have sweeping powers and a steadying hand to check the factionalism of the Congress. The two houses of the legislature would pass laws, but the president-king would have veto power.

And yet, the document failed to give the president any tools when Congress refuses to act or holds the Executive Branch hostage to their demands by not doing its job working or passing legislation. Is this a fatal flaw in our mixed monarchy model?

In fact, among Latin American countries that emulate our system, governmental impasse has been the cause of repeated failure, explains Yale’s Juan Linz. Unlike parliamentary/prime minister systems where either a deal can be struck between factions or new elections be called, the presidential model has no such mechanism. Hence, Latin American governments based on the U.S. model have oscillated between authoritarianism and dysfunction.

Clearly, our government is verging on dysfunction if not actually dysfunctional. Too many in Congress don’t understand the nature of governing or have long since jettisoned their knowledge of how it’s designed to work. In the name of saying “no” to Obama or taking “their” country back, they claim a mandate to undermine government instead of providing for the well-being of all Americans. Eschewing compromise and deal-making, they employ government shutdown, demagoguery, and non-action, to the detriment of us all.

So, why not vote these do-nothings out of office? Isn’t that the solution to government impasse that our Constitution provides? I realize that idea sounds naive in these modern days of gerrymandering, PACs, and billionaire’s funding of candidates that only serve to mock the principle of government for the people, by the people.

But still, I wonder, why not give voting a chance? The Census Bureau reported that only 41.9% of eligible voters cast a ballot in the 2014 Congressional races. So, what if we, the people, tried to get that number up to 80-90% as a national experiment in reclaiming democracy? After all, we know Congress isn’t going to reform campaign laws. And unless Jesus has espoused on the subject, many state legislatures won’t do it either.

The reality is that the U.S. Constitution came with no guarantees and few democracies have lasted as long as ours. Too many among us have taken America for granted by believing in the “genius” of our Constitution. There are also too many believers in the concept of American exceptionalism absent any rational reason for America being an exception among countries or democracies. To the contrary, we are experiencing an unraveling of our system, ripped apart by from the fringes, quarterbacked by the likes of Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and Mitch McConnell, just to name a few.

Is America up to the task of saving our democracy? President Obama says Americans can do anything we put our minds to. But I fear that his message is heavy with hope and light on certainty. Are we at the end of America as we have known it? That’s something worth fearing. I fear for us.

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Austin, Cedar Capital of the World!!

I’m reposting my blog post from January, 2014, because it’s just so darn timely. If you are in Austin now and still not sneezing and dripping, don’t count your chickens, yet.   Our annual pollination festival is amping up slowly. . . albeit surely.  The swallows might forego Capistrano, but Austin’s cedars are a loyal lot and they will bloom come hell or high water. Here were my words from 2014, ringing just as true now:

Among the reasons for not moving to Austin, I bet you think our atrocious traffic problem and lack of mass transit is at the top of the list. Or the lack of affordable housing. Or the high property taxes.

cedar.pollenBut you’d be mistaken. The number one reason not to live in Austin is CEDAR, specifically the pollen that cedar trees emanate resulting in the truly abominable cedar fever. “Cedar is juniperus ashei,” allergist Dr. Eric Schultz told a local television reporter recently.  “It’s one of the worst allergens, or most potent allergens on the planet. Here in Central Texas it’s rampant, especially in Austin.”

You might think I’m talking about a runny nose or some sneezes here and there. Again, you’d be wrong. It’s far worse.  For weeks you can be plagued by sore throat, amazing phlegm production, a nose that won’t stop running, watery, itchy eyes, intermittent sneezing attacks, and ultimately, a hacking cough. A guy who moved from LA to Central Texas reported that he had to start allergy shots after encountering cedar. “The fact that I can hold a regular conversation and see you five feet in front of me means it’s made a world of difference so far,” he told a reporter.

And cedar doesn’t wait to bring us down at a convenient time of the year. No way! Cedar pollen makes its appearance just in time for Christmas, spills over to New Year’s, and stays around until Valentine’s Day, more or less.

I started having cedar allergies as a child, and as a result of being sick every Christmas, I developed a bah humbug attitude toward the whole holiday. My childhood pictures show a young girl with a bright red nose, a la Rudolph, and squinting eyes because she’s struggling to stay awake, being drugged to the gills with antihistamines. Needless to say, the best Christmases were those we spent in Dallas celebrating with grandparents.

Because of cedar fever, I’ve continued to dread this time of year and have been reluctant to plan much, particularly any major outings on New Year’s Eve.  I just never know if I’m going to be sick or not. Even if I slide by Christmas because of a late pollen release, I could be sneezing my head off by New Year’s. Just imagine being in a club with a band blaring or a ballroom with a million noisemakers going off while your head and sinus cavities are pounding in painful rhythm!

Like the LA guy, I get weekly (or so) allergy injections that consist of ever-increasing doses of the allergens that I am sensitive to with hopes of building up an immunity to them. For the last 5 years I’ve been going to the allergist’s office to get the weekly shot, and then I have to wait for 15 minutes to make sure I don’t go into systemic shock. If this were to happen, my understanding is that a shot of epinephrine would be quickly administered to me. (I always envision John Travolta giving Uma Thurman a shot in her heart in Pulp Fiction!) But I digress. How effective are these shots? Usually, they work to minimize my reactions, but this year, with record level highs pollen counts, any dent they are making seems pretty minimal.

So, just to fully inform potential Austinites what else they may be buying with their Austin real estate, here’s a look at the medicine cabinet of a cedar fever sufferer: antihistamines (non-drowsy and drowsy in both pill form and nasal spray), throat lozenges, pseudoephedrine (a.k.a. Sudafed for which you need a picture I.D. to purchase), cough medicine, analgesics, eye drops for allergies, and guaifenesin (Mucinex, Maximum Strength is best). And that’s just the first tier. Second tier drugs are those nasal irrigationneeded after your allergy attack has matured into a sinus infection or bronchitis. Then, you will probably need a steroid injection or prednisone pills, along with antibiotics and perhaps a respiratory anti-inflammatory (e.g. Singulair). Along the way, you may want a Netti pot/nasal irrigator or bottle of saline solution to wash out your nasal passages and a cold mist humidifier. Did I mention Kleenex? Lots of Kleenex.

Now, I hear some of you saying, “This is not going to happen to me – I’ve never had any allergies, so I’m probably immune.” Not necessarily so, I assure you.  You can incur new allergies at almost any time.  And if you think you can predict anything after a single cedar season, again, you are misinformed. It takes about seven years before new residents fall prey to Satan cedar. But, at least you can say you had seven good years.

But wait! It’s not all about you. If you have children, why would you subject them to this torture? They can get cedar fever, just like I did, and if they are miserable, you will be miserable. And if you are in cedar fever hell already, you will be doubly miserable when your kids are sick and you are washing out their nasal passages and sucking out nasal production (polite word) with those bulb things. There’s nothing more pitiful than a sick kid. And if you have a sick spouse? Quadruple agony!

In short, cedar is the most evil tree ever allowed to spread anywhere.  Moreover, I’ve seen recent studies showing that cedar trees suck more water from the ground than any other tree. Here we are in the midst of the worse drought ever and wouldn’t you think someone would stand up and say: death to cedar trees!!??

But, of course, you’d be mistaken. No Austinite is going to advocate the destruction of a single tree, even if it were the last source in the world of hardwood planking for a West Austin McMansion. In Austin, we protect all of our trees without discriminating on the basis of color, country of origin, ethnicity, or costs to society.

But why not make an exception in the case of cedar?  This indiscriminate tree love is bad for at least half of the city’s populace. Imagine the workplace productivity that is lost and the trees that must be killed to produce more Kleenex and replace the printed page I just sneezed all over. Does it make sense that we’ll all end up with three or four enormous rain barrels in our yards before a single cedar tree is slaughtered at the altar of good health and sufficient water supply?

But I guess I should try to find a silver lining to all the misery related to this tree. I’m thinking that if we really publicize it, fewer people will move to Austin, and cedar fever will have served a higher purpose. How about a new city moniker: “Cedar Fever Capital of the World?” And then, let’s have a Cedar Fever festival at Zilker Park, giving our city leaders another opportunity to authorize the trampling and destruction of park grass. To make our point, we would open it up only to musicians who are roused from their sickbeds to perform, all the while sneezing, sniffling, and tripping on antihistamines. Just like Woodstock!

austin trafficWhat do you think? If more people around the world heard about our cedar tree problem, do you think they’d stay away, find other places to live? If so, I could start loving the tree (albeit from a distance). And just maybe, this could be the ultimate solution to our god-awful traffic!!

Posted in Nature, Old/New Austin | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Beer in the Backyard with George W

Lumbering along the long and winding campaign trail to find a Republican candidate to run against Hillary (or Joe, Martin, or Bernie), it’s hard to ignore the reality show that is Donald Trump. He dominates most news and public affairs broadcasts with an act that surely makes Rush Limbaugh sob into his pillow at night, “He’s stealing my shtick!”

Like Limbaugh, the Donald comes without a set of filters, saying whatever comes to mind – most of it rude, coarse, and offensive.  In many respects, he follows the Republican game that started out as “We’ll-make-Obama-a-one-term-president,” and has morphed into “We’ll-destroy-Obama’s-legacy.”  But he also plays a multi-purpose offense that includes Obama and anyone else who steps on his cape or appears to be a serious threat to his nomination/election.


One must wonder about this chord in the key of Ugly that has captivated the ear of so many Americans. I understand the tea party folks — they’ve always reveled in rude, bombastic public discourse as an alternative to simply shooting up the saloon. But there are more than tea partiers at Trump’s soiree. Are these people mesmerized by his “government is broke and I’m the only one who is smart enough to fix it” message? Or are they among the morbidly curious enjoying another car wreck?

Whatever the case, if Trump doesn’t become the next president, any network would be crazy not to give him his own television show. No, not another season of “The Apprentice,” rather one where he stands at a podium and bloviates for a while, kind of Don Rickles unleashed.  They’d call it “The Bloviator.”

He could have guest bloviators.  I suggest his first guest could be the most embarrassing Texan to go to Washington since George W. Bush – Ted Cruz, who is another mystery of this campaign season.  Why does he have any following at all? I mentally cringe every time he opens his mouth. Did my fellow Texans – my extended neighborhood – really elect this guy?  He’s so “unappealing,” to borrow an adjective for Cruz written by Professor Gary Keith (Texas government guru).


In fact, Cruz has a pathological streak of ugliness that renders him worse than Trump. For instance, in the days after Beau Biden’s death from brain cancer, Ted Cruz was trolling for laughs with comments about Joe Biden being a joke, a laugh line. He couldn’t even wait until the man buried his son!  Similarly, the day after former President Jimmy Carter announced the discovery of his cancer, Ted Cruz inserted snide remarks about the former president into his campaign speech, claiming that Obama’s administration is the worst since Carter’s. These two incidents alone speak volumes about Cruz’s true character. Volumes entitled No Decency, No Compassion, and No Empathy.

Leaving aside the question of who is worse, Trump and Cruz both subscribe to the theory that it pays to be a jerk. Actually, this theory has been tossed around by the business community in recent years, particularly in the wake of the Steve Jobs biography. As Jerry Useem notes in his June Atlantic article “Why it Pays to Be a Jerk,” the Jobs biography has caused many people in leadership to ask, “Don’t you think I should be more of an asshole?”


In pursuit of an answer to that question, Useem reviews the research and evidence that is lacking in most self-help “success literature,” starting with the theoretical framework set out in Aaron James’s book, Assholes: A Theory.  It just so happens that James’ definition of an asshole coincides almost perfectly with the definition of narcissism in academic psychology, according to Donald Hambrick, a management professor at Penn State.

The further I read in Useem’s article, the more I realized that Donald Trump fit the definition perfectly.  If I’m right, what Trump allows us to see is not what voters should fear most.  As stated by the Mayo Clinic, the outward manifestations of this personality disorder – an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others – are just parts of a mask. Underneath all this ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.

In this regard, consider how Trump has responded in tone or substance to every slight (real or perceived) from the media world or his fellow candidates. They shoot a little bullet and he goes nuclear with his mouth or media ads, surely a measure of fragile self-esteem that needs bolstering by big talk and action. Does anyone really want him, the equivalent of an insecure little boy, having the codes to real nuclear weaponry?  It’s hard to fathom.

Back in 2000, when George W. Bush was a leading candidate for president, I admit to being similarly perplexed about his success with voters. I asked my friend, and renowned political strategist, Tony Proffitt, to explain it for me. He said that it boiled down to the fact that people could imagine sitting around in the backyard and having a beer with George. He could be their next-door neighbor, someone relatable.

At first, I struggled with that idea, but admittedly, nothing else explained it. Bush’s government experience was negligible compared to that of Al Gore’s.  Also, he had a very sketchy record in terms of military service, school records, alcohol, drug use, a whole array of negatives that would disqualify the typical candidate. And let’s not forget his garbling of the English language and common metaphors!


So, do we apply the same reasoning to explain the Donald Trump phenomenon – a relatable, beer-drinking, next door neighbor? A guy who travels in private jets and helicopters? The Howard Hughes of politicians, a germophobe who uses sterilizing wipes after handshaking? Does anyone really think he’s going to quaff a Bud with them?

Maybe people are relating to his anger, recognizing a kindred spirit.  Are they fellow narcissists who believe they know all the answers and could clean up Washington in a week if only given the opportunity? Compromise and working with the other branches of government? No way, they say! Anyone who thinks differently is STUPID!!  Really?

But I’ve often heard that “angry” doesn’t translate into electoral victory.  Just imagine  four years of Trump constantly railing about the bureaucratic pace of government? What about a rotating staff and cabinet as the headline “You’re fired!” dominates the front pages of all the newspapers?  Will he engage in temper tantrums because he can’t fire Congress or members of the Supreme Court? Will anyone who dares to criticize him or ask questions he deems verboten be suddenly faced with an IRS audit or if they happen to be part of the White House press corps, physically removed from press briefings?  Do people really want to buy tickets to these performances for four years?

Overall, it’s been an interesting summer on the campaign trail, but I don’t like what it says about some of my fellow Americans, in particular, and the political system, in general. Trump and Cruz are only two of the scary prospects.   I’m also worried about the retired neurosurgeon, Ben Carson, along with many others in the field for a variety of issues, including their inexperience, contempt for women’s rights, misunderstanding of the Supreme Court’s role in our government, goal of dismantling the Affordable Health Care Act, and desire to incorporate religion and government.  In short, Republicans keep falling to new lows and as they follow the new Pied Piper, Donald Trump, we can only expect to go lower.

Frankly, it’s all so disgusting, I almost want to turn off the news and go have a beer with George W!  Almost.

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Various Shades of Confederate Grey

Aroused by the shootings in South Carolina and the Confederate Flag controversy, Austinites are among many Southerners who are debating whether to purge its city of statues of Confederate leaders, along with considering name changes for the buildings and schools bearing their names.

John h reagan statue

Of the two issues, statues are more easily dealt with, being relatively easy to move from sight and mind. But school names that have a history in the hearts and minds of their graduates is a bit harder. For example, I wonder how I would feel if it were decided that O. Henry (pen name for William Sydney Porter) had been a subversive figure and my junior high school were renamed? I’m not a huge fan of the writer, but that school with that name is a part of my personal history and I’d rather not have to redact those memories now.

The question is, however, do we convenience past graduates or do we finally clean up the last smears of the Confederacy leadership that we still honor with naming rights? While there may be a pretty strong case for rejecting Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, the southerners most associated with the Civil War, there is a Texan of lesser fame, that I think should be pardoned from any purge. (Beware, the history buff is writing the rest of this piece.)

Most Texans don’t have an inkling about John H. Reagan beyond knowing of a high school and, perhaps, a state office building bearing his name. If they have any information about him, it’s been acquired as part of the recent Confederate leaders debate in which he was identified as Postmaster of the Confederacy – the only Texan to hold a Confederate cabinet position.

Reagan.high school


Reagan was a remarkable Postmaster. His main departments were headed by men who had served in similar positions with the U.S. Post Office Department and accepted his invitation to work with him. Accordingly, within six weeks, the Confederacy had functional post office facilities. Showing further flair for organization, he cut expenses – eliminating little-used routes and negotiating lower railroad rates – thereby turning a profit and making his post office department the only self-sustaining government postal operation in American history!

But, before he’s thrown to the historical dust heap for his Postmastership, I believe it behooves us to reconsider this Tennessean-turned-Texan by weighing his Confederate service against his otherwise impressive service to our state.

His resume of public service to Texas is a long one. Having relocated to Texas in 1839 and joined the Texas forces engaged in the expulsion of Cherokees, Reagan was elected two years later as militia captain and justice of the peace for his precinct. A year after statehood, he was elected to be the first county judge of Henderson County, and the following year, 1847, he was elected to the Second Texas Legislature. In 1852, Reagan won election as district judge and, in 1857, East Texans elected him to the U.S. House of Representatives. Although he opposed the institution of slavery, he supported it as a matter of state’s rights. However, he was strongly opposed to secession from the Union.

In fact, historians have explained that Reagan was a Unionist at heart. In his memoirs, written in 1903, Reagan insisted that as a member of the 35th and 36th Congresses, he struggled to maintain the Union. This position is supported by his contemporaries and the press. The Dallas Herald considered him a true patriot, “an able defender of . . . the Constitution and a Union-loving statesman . . . ,” while the Tyler Reporter viewed Reagan as an enemy of “the fire-eating disunionists.”

And yet, as a decision on secession loomed, Reagan made the choice to be loyal to his state and to his friend, Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, accepting his offer to join his Cabinet.

At war’s end, however, his Unionist sentiments reemerged. From a Boston federal prison where he spent 22 weeks in solitary confinement, Reagan wrote an open letter to his fellow Texans, urging them to accept the Confederacy’s defeat, return willingly to the Union, and work to rebuild a unified nation. This letter was not well-received in Texas, but he returned home in December, 1865, and began mending political fences.

By 1875, Reagan had been elected as one of 90 delegates to draft a post-Reconstruction Texas Constitution. Most of the forty-one farmers, twenty-nine lawyers, and other twenty delegates had no previous experience in elected office nor any intent to pursue such office in the future. As the San Antonio Daily Herald reported, they were “men without name, drawn from different sections of the state, most of them never having been heard of beyond their local habitation and district.” But John H. Reagan was one of the exceptions and, as the debates and drafting history show, provided valuable guidance based on his years of experience in various governmental branches.

Constitutional convention

Approximately half of the delegates, including Reagan, identified their political affiliation as Granger, a.k.a., the Society of the Patrons of Husbandry, and Reagan ably represented Grange party concerns involving railroads, including their control by absentee New York capitalists, the high and discriminatory rate setting, and notorious stock manipulation.

During the Convention, Reagan also served as chairman of the committee charged with drafting the judicial branch article. He explained the importance of this article, pointing out that court backlogs and other problems with the judicial system – more than any other grievance – had caused Texans to seek a new Constitution. As passed, the judiciary article maintained an elected judiciary and provided for a more efficient court system by creating more courts (including intermediate courts of appeals) and setting minimum jurisdictional amounts to keep smaller matters from clogging up the dockets of the higher courts.

The year 1875 also marked Reagan’s reelection to his pre-War congressional seat, where he served on the Commerce Committee, advocating for federal regulation of railroads and helping create the Interstate Commerce Commission. He also served as the first chairman of the Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads. In 1887, he was elected to the U.S. Senate from Texas, but resigned that seat in 1891 to become chairman of the newly-formed Texas Railroad Commission at the behest of his friend, Governor James Stephen “Jim” Hogg, who had run on a platform of state regulation of railroads.


Reagan chaired the Commission from its inception until 1903. Designed to regulate state commerce as an extension of the ICC’s federal work, the Commission became an institution aiding the state’s manufacturers, thereby fostering state economic growth. It’s been said that his tenure provided the leadership and prestige necessary in the early years of this extremely powerful state regulatory body. I would also venture to say that he prepared the Commission for its subsequent role as regulator of the Texas oil and gas business, which prior to OPEC, became the most powerful state agency in this country because of its role in setting the world’s oil prices.  When Reagan died in 1905, the entire Texas Legislature attended his funeral.  History lesson over.


As Reagan’s struggle with the decision to serve the Confederacy reveals, those were complicated times in our nation’s history, and judging human beings from today’s perspectives should not be done lightly. I would be willing to bet that no one woke up one day in the 1860s and said, “I think I’ll work to destroy the union of the American states.” Most of the men who participated in the Confederate leadership were honorable gentlemen and Southerners, whose loyalties and obligations weighed heavily on the scales of the choices they made, choices that seem so obviously bad to us today, but for them, may not have even felt like choices at all.

The Confederate battle flag, however, is not complicated. As we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, it was resurrected and used in the South as a symbol of hate and racism in the wake of desegregation and the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s. Period.

While dumping the Confederate flag is a no-brainer, I’d like to urge that we think carefully before throwing out all of the historical leaders that may have bathed in the red and blue bath water. We can scrub ourselves clean of our history only so much before we lose the sense of who we are and where we’ve been. And where do we draw the lines amidst so many shades of grey? After all, both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson held other human beings in slavery.

As for John H. Reagan, it’s relatively easy for me to draw the line between his Confederate service and the numerous contributions he made as a public servant in Texas. He represented his constituents assiduously and honorably. Over a century later, we still live with the fruits of his service, both as a nation and a state. Surely, he deserves to be honored by the statues and the buildings and schools that bear his name.

In fact, maybe he deserves another laurel. How about a John H. Reagan postage stamp to honor the only postmaster who ran a profitable postal system? Not exactly a moon shot, but a significant achievement as we head toward the half-dollar stamp!

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Texas, Where our Government is Worse than our Weather

One thing we often say of Texas weather: Just wait a day and it will change. Too bad we can’t say the same thing about our political leadership – it just gets (un)progressively worse with little improvement in the forecast.


Our prior Attorney General, Greg Abbott, was known for his campaigning with the likes of Ted Nugent and describing his job as AG thus: “I go into the office, I sue the Obama administration, and I go home.” Not much of a multi-tasker. One wonders how he would have filled his days had he served during a Ted Cruz administration.

But given the weather pattern we find ourselves stuck in, Abbott was elevated to governor, and Tea Party darling/former state senator, Ken Paxton, was elected to fill the AG post despite some legal issues involving state securities law. When asked about the violations during his campaign for AG, he claimed ignorance – poor guy, he was just unaware of those laws. Moreover, compared to Abbott, Paxton is even more interested in political posturing than performing the governmental duties assigned to the AG. We can only hope he’ll find his way to a court room soon – those securities law violations have been more thoroughly investigated and prosecutors are planning to take their findings of potential fraud (a felony) to a grand jury later this month. Let’s hope that works out for us.  Additionally, there’s another possible legal action regarding some questionable land deals. (I’m not sure whether he had any particular mental state – ignorance or semi-awareness – regarding the legalities of those actions.)


But now his legal nonchalance has extended itself beyond his personal affairs as he orchestrates constitutional violations en masse. Specifically, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s declaration that the U.S. Constitution guarantees same-sex couples the same right to marry as heterosexual couples, Paxton looks askance at that court’s supremacy on the issue of interpreting the constitution and has issued his own advisory opinion stating that county clerks may refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples if doing so conflicts with their religious beliefs.

Although he doesn’t quite instruct the clerks not to issue licenses to these couples, he makes it quite clear that it wouldn’t bother him if they decided not to do so. So much for his Constitutional oath of office affirming that “to the best of my ability preserve, [I will] protect and defend the Constitution and Laws of the United States and of this state, so help me God.” But at least he is aware and considerate enough to give the clerks a heads up: if they go rogue, they may get sued. When that happens, he assures them, plenty of private attorneys are waiting eagerly to represent them.


Personally, I’d like to meet the clerk who thinks a lawsuit is a reasonable alternative to not doing their job, which specifically requires issuing marriage licenses to legally qualified couples. A job, I might add, that required them to take the same oath of office as Paxton – and one they could quit whenever the conflict between their religious beliefs and their duties becomes too onerous.

I wonder whether they realize that they would be sued in their individual capacity since a county can’t have religious beliefs, and as individuals, they would be unable to claim the governmental immunity that usually protects a public official when something goes awry in the performance of their job. Usually, you see, state or local government officials are shielded from lawsuits and/or liability when sued for acts arising from their good faith performance of discretionary duties that are within the scope of their statutory authority. If an action involves personal deliberation, decision and judgment, it is discretionary; if the official has no choice as to whether to perform a task, it is considered ministerial.

Considering that distinction, it would seem that the county clerks have a ministerial duty to issue marriage licenses to legally qualified individuals. It’s not a discretionary act where they can decide whether or not to issue a marriage license: if the legal requirements are met, they must issue the license. As of last Friday, June 26th, the Supreme Court ruled that couples cannot be legally disqualified based on gender. Therefore, Texas county clerks are required to perform the ministerial task of issuing same-sex couples licenses if they otherwise meet the qualifications. Any clerk who cites religious beliefs for their failure to perform this clear duty, accordingly, is acting outside the scope of their authority and cannot use governmental immunity as a shield from liability, which is why Paxton says – without explaining – that “private” attorneys would be defending them. Government attorneys only defend officials when they act within the scope of their authority.


If it were me, General Paxton, I’d rather not take you up on your suggestion that I get sued. One reason is I’d really hate being on the receiving end of depositions – my preference is to ask the questions, not answer them. Nor would I want to put family members, pastors, co-workers, and others with knowledge of relevant facts in the position of participation in my legal entanglement. And you’d better believe that the plaintiffs’ legal team would ask to collect attorney’s fees along with any kind of fines or damages (like intentional infliction of emotional distress) that could be levied. Frankly, who has the patience for appellate courts to consider the validity of a lower court judgment, not to mention, the money to pay a judgment if it is ultimately upheld? (A piece of legal advice here for the rogue clerks: make sure your home is homesteaded so no lien can be attached.)

But let’s suppose you could find another religious, homophobic organization or person to pay whatever damages were assessed. Not so fast. Judgments in your name tend to follow you around. Any such judgment would probably need to be listed on credit applications and other financial documents. Banks and other institutions may be less sympathetic regarding rogue actions by a former public official than your zealot friends and our current Attorney General. What if your religious beliefs prevented you from paying the moneylenders one day?

Money lenders

But regardless of any actions ultimately taken or not taken by county clerks, Paxton’s urging the clerks to break the law and endure a lawsuit just shows how unqualified he is to be the state’s chief legal officer. The fact that he would be so blasé about these officials subjecting themselves to legal action demonstrates how little experience he has in the court system, and how he should not be supervising an office of over 400 professional litigators. In short, he’s not a real lawyer. He’s a businessman who thinks he should be let off with little more than a slap on the wrist for his violations of securities laws because he was ignorant of those laws. Worse still, he’s also a politician who would join up with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to establish a theocracy of their religion (and that of their Tea Party followers).

There may be others who would sign up for their plan to create a religious state, but I’m willing to bet that a majority of Texans would like these leaders to keep their personal religious beliefs personal and respect people of all faiths (or no faith). In 1620, English men and women journeyed to this country in search of religious liberty and freedom of conscience, not another state-imposed religion. Our founding fathers built on that foundation with the first sentence of the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”


The freedom of religion provision has been interpreted many times over the years as an expression of the intent to separate church from state. Religion has crept into public life in various instances, but there can be no question that your right to exercise your religion, also provides me with the right to be free of your religion. You, Ken “Lawless” Paxton, violate the constitution when you urge the use of the machinery of government to deprive marriage licenses to people on the basis of religious beliefs. And on this, the Fourth of July, 2015, 239 years after our founding, let me say that your actions, General Paxton, are nothing short of un-American.

Let’s hope the weather changes soon. Our land of law is being inundated by incompetent zealots.

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Duck and Cover Redux

Like most of us who grew up in the early 1960s, I remember the strange public safety drills we practiced at school.  The fire drill made sense.  At the sounding of three loud tones over the PA system, we’d line up at the door like little soldiers and be guided out to the playground by our teacher to escape a potential fire. But no one left the building when we heard five loud tones. That alert signaled the bomb drill, and we were required to “duck and cover,” i.e., hide under our desks until the “all clear” signal was heard.


I was never audacious enough to peek out to see whether the teachers also took cover under their desk, but I assume they did – which is really remarkable, if you think about it. Surely, they knew better.  Innocents that we were, the utter futility of desk hiding did not occur to us.

Texans now have another reason for alarm that should galvanize us to brush up on our “duck and cover” skills. This time, we won’t be defending ourselves against bombs from the U.S.S.R., but rather a group of people closer to home. Thanks to local gun nuts and our own elected officials who need the nuts to get re-elected, we can once again meet our end almost any time and any place. You see, the gun people aren’t happy with a concealed handgun license (CHL) that merely allows them to carry their weaponry discretely under their clothes. They now want us to see them strap it on, strut their stuff, or more simply put, display their manliness (whichever the gender). More disturbing still is that law enforcement won’t even be allowed to detain someone to determine whether they actually have the required CHL if the Texas House majority gets its way.

Reasonable minds simply don’t have enough votes in the Texas House. For example, shot down by the House majority was an amendment proposed by Rep. Rafael Anchia of Dallas that would allow the large local metropolitan areas to opt out of the open carry law. Another representative from Houston made an argument about local voters being able to make decisions on matters of grave local importance, but Rep. Larry Phillips declared that the collective best interests of Texas in having an open carry law trumped any local control of the issue. By the way, Rep. Phillips is from a county with a website boasting a banner that “God Bless America,” located not a stone’s throw from Louie Gohmert’s Congressional district. Does that clue you in?


Rep. Phillips’ position totally belies the fact that Texas is big and varied, including counties such as Loving whose seat, Mentone, has a population of 15 people, Harris whose seat, Houston, is among the most populous cities in the nation, and all sizes in between. Compare the effects of gun fighting in Houston (population over 6 million) with those that might erupt in Rep. Phillips’ home town of Sherman (population under 40,000). Seems like even an East Texan could see a rational justification for allowing large cities to make certain decisions under a local option.  Aren’t their police departments already stretched thin dealing with gun violence and people who have illegal weapons?

Heelllooo!!! Now, we will have visibly armed citizens and law enforcement will have no idea whether any particular weapon is legal or illegal and they won’t be allowed to ask. Could the open carry law, I wonder,  just be a pretext to make all guns legal? If police officers can’t handle the situation now how will they manage when so many more people will be carrying guns that the officers can’t question?  At least we can hope that the chances of getting shot by law enforcement will be spread out more equally among the races and ethnic groups.

Just for the record, I’m part of the crowd who would prefer not to be around guns, concealed or not, but I’m downright panicky at the thought of them being handled so casually, sitting on people’s hips or shoulder like a piece of outerwear. It seems like it would be way too tempting for the random criminal who may try to separate a legal carrier from his penis, I mean, gun? And won’t a gun on the table change conversations or transactions, escalating acrimonious encounters like road rage? Will intimidation become the name of the game?

In the thankful-for-small-favors department, a premises owner has the option of prohibiting guns at his place of business, both concealed and open carry, giving us the option of frequenting only such businesses as wish to guarantee our safety to some degree. You would think that the Texas Association of Business would have tried harder to kill the bill, but they just managed to get an amendment that would allow premises owners to put up one sign instead of two (one for concealed, one for open carry). I guess there aren’t enough business owners in Texas to counter the gun nuts.

Open carry.texas

The bottom line is that Texas with gun slingers is going to be a more dangerous place. In a letter to the Austin American Statesman, Charles Payne wrote about his experience in Vietnam where he and the guys around him all openly carried guns: Did I feel safer? No, just hyper-vigilant. There, final justice became whatever the gun carrier conceived it to be . . . . I hate war zone living where everyone openly carried a gun with a finger near the trigger all the time, including me. Mistakes happened. Good guys get killed by good guys over little stuff . . . . I really do not want to see guns everywhere again – or go looking for mine.

In another letter, Mike Looby, ex-Marine Vietnam vet explains he is comfortable with guns, but up to a point:  If I’m on a hunting trip, I expect people to have guns. But if I’m in a Wal-Mart and there’s some guy toting an AK or packing a pistol, that makes me pause. Just as I’m not against underwear and I think everyone has the right to wear it, if I see a guy with underwear on the outside of his pants, I’m a little worried.

We should all be worried. One of the biggest problems with gun carrying is that there is a tendency for those guns to be used, either accidentally or on purpose. And once a trigger is pulled, there can be little or no control over where that bullet will go. If the mark is missed (and I’m sure most carriers do not have sharpshooting credentials), that bullet can go through walls and continue traveling some distance. Bullets range in velocities from 380 feet per second to 3500 feet per second, so the higher the velocity the longer the trajectory. Likewise, different guns have different “kill ranges,” usually measured in a few hundred yards. A good rule of thumb for a bullet that misses its intended target, assuming there is one, is a traveling distance of one mile, although it may or may not kill at that distance. Are you feeling lucky?

So, imagine the scenario of being in a store at a strip center that you think is safe because the store prohibits guns, but a fight breaks out in the parking lot and bullets come streaming through the front glass windows just where many people happen to be standing because that’s where the cash registers are. How many innocent people could be killed or maimed? Why aren’t our elected officials interested in protecting us from this or any other possible scenario? (Dumb question, I know.)

Accordingly, it occurs to me that we need to bring back the safety drill of the 60s. If they won’t do this at school, we need to instill in our children that the sound of a fired bullet is a signal that they must immediately drop and hide behind the strongest surface they can find. As adults, we need to be prepared as well, keeping in mind that our police cannot protect us, and in fact, may not be able to protect themselves without shooting their own guns more than ever – exposing us to increasingly more errant bullets. Sad to say, but the wild, wild west is back!

wild west

The ultimate irony is that our Republican leadership has always tried to brand itself as the “law and order” party. Now in Texas, trying to use such a brand has officially become laughable — just like hiding under a desk during a nuclear attack!

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The United States of Wonderland

A few weeks ago, I found myself wondering where to find the elevator to get me out of this rabbit hole in which I found myself.  Until that point, the world could get pretty crazy, but I would never have imagined that 47 U.S. Senators would become pen pals with leaders of the Iranian state in order to sabotage efforts for an international agreement that would maintain oversight on any attempt by Iranians to go nuclear.

letter iran

And in that world as I knew it, senior senators would not have signed on to a letter-writing campaign spearheaded by a freshman congressman whose sum total of congressional experience amounted to about 2 months. Freshman Tom Cotton’s foreign policy chops are probably even less impressive. Yet, senators with decades of experience added their names to the letter, explaining later that they were in a rush to get out of town and might not have given it enough thought.  Sure glad these rabbits, crazily running to their “very important date,” are running our government!! And Bob Schieffer, bless his heart, hid that Cheshire cat smile admirably when he asked Mr. Cotton on Face the Nation whether he plans on writing letters to any of our other adversaries, say North Korea?  As always, good question from Bob, who really knows Crazyland!


But if the truth be told, as years go by, I’ve bumped into an increasing number of crazy things, so I guess it was about time for irrationality levels to reach a critical mass.  From my vantage point, what constitutes that critical mass is a pretty long list, but I’ll share just a few with you.

For example, who in their right mind would spend big wads of cash to form a Rick Perry political action committee (PAC) for his presidential campaign? Have these misguided souls noticed the long list of Republican hopefuls, including Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz, one of whom will leave teeth marks on RP’s backside if he, another Texan, gets in his way. Also, did these donors suffer from collective amnesia about RP’s performance four years ago? I’m sorry, but there’s no coming back from that (particularly his maple syrup love-in), with or without glasses.

The PAC-folks explain this money-throw by telling us that RP has an incredible story to tell and that many people didn’t get a chance in 2012 to “truly understand his background.” Would that incredible story be about his time as a cheerleader in Aggieland? The fact that he was Democrat before he was a Republican? That the Christian god speaks to his wife about politics? I hate to burst their bubble, put I don’t see the makings of an incredible story voters are dying to hear about . . . unless he’s coming out of the closet, or something of that nature. And, by the way, PAC donors, if you have money just lying around and want to do something productive with it, I know a couple of app developers who would really put it to good use. Check out

And what’s with those people who complain about Austin traffic but are relentless rubberneckers, thereby making traffic slowdowns even worse? Sure, it’s the traffic accident that initially slows down traffic to creeping mud flow speed, but when the accident has been pulled off the roadway and traffic is free to speed up, why do folks continue to crawl along, taking a long, loving look at the accident scene? Just let me ask you, if you’ve seen one or two accidents, haven’t you pretty much seen them all? And if you are still hoping to see something you haven’t seen yet, what on earth might that be? Something truly bloody and gruesome? A dead body lying on the ground??


Frankly, if it were me lying dead on the roadside, I’d much rather you’d wait until I was at the funeral home and all cleaned up before you stared at me as if my bloodied body were any of your business. Sense of decency, anyone? But on the other hand. I’m not closing the door to the possibility of justifiable gawking. For example, an incident involving a herd of emus or escaped llamas might be worth a gander or two. A truckload of chickens on the side of the road, not so much. A cop tazing or shooting an unarmed citizen? Stop. Get out your cell phone. Record!!!  This is the crazy world we live in.

Another thing that strikes me as crazy are those Washington politicians who have press conferences surrounded by a gaggle of other politicians, usually men, with the exception of Speaker John Boehner who is generally flanked by his token woman.  Her name is Cathy McMorris Rogers, which I only knew because I googled “Boehner’s token woman.”

So much to wonder about:  Do these guys think they look more impressive with their dudes around them as if a performance of the “Jets Song” from West Side Story were about to break out? Can they even snap their fingers in unison, I wonder? Is there a sense of safety in numbers, giving a potential assassin more targets? Do these leaders think they look better in close comparison to others? (Note to Mitch: it will never work!)


And, another thing I ask is how do they assemble these backdrop groups? Do they send out an email earlier in the day telling selected individuals about the meet-up? Or do they grab whoever is walking by? Will they ever lock arms and start dancing off camera? The possibilities seem endlessly weird.

But, an even weirder aspect of life in the 2000-teens is the Kardashian thing. Who are they really and how did so many normal Americans happen to sip their Kool-aid? I’ve been confused since the day, a few years ago, when they suddenly appeared on Earth — possibly interplanetary travelers — whose sole purpose seemed to be the performance of acts involving extreme narcissism and bodily display that some earthlings would find appealing. I can’t even begin to imagine what that appeal is, but I’m very impressed with the resilience of their bodies that seem to wax and wane in size fairly rapidly. Adopting such a feature might be useful to us earthlings.

And I really can’t understand this Bruce Jenner, an apparent summoner of these beings. He used to be involved in some Olympic sporting event, but I’ve long since forgotten whether it was swimming, running, skiing, or something else, and I’m not really interested in knowing about it now. I find him a bit disturbing, particularly given his role in the Kardashian landing.

Finally, I’ve spent years wondering about the rationale of only one lemon per glass of iced tea at restaurants, despite the fact that the glass may be refilled multiple times.  Haven’t you noticed that you may be offered as many refills as you can drink, but are rarely asked whether you’d like additional lemons?


You may think the issue of the one lemon rule is unworthy of much concern, but you have to admit that it’s a curious phenomenon considering that a lemon (or lime) perched on the rim is de rigueur with the service of your tea.  It would make sense if the citrus were just a decorative garnish. However, it’s a functional garnish because it’s intended to add flavor to the tea. So, what sense does it make that you would want to squeeze lemon in your first glass for flavor, but none of the subsequent ones?

Maybe we are supposed to economize with that slice of lemon by using only drops at a time, saving it to use in our refills. If so, where do we put that lemon after we’ve used those few drops? Do we put it back to straddle the rim, hoping it can hang on in its depleted condition? If we were supposed to just leave the lemon-in-wait on the table, shouldn’t the restaurant supply us with a saucer of some sort? Do we rest it in our iced teaspoon, assuming we get one?  (Don’t get me started on straws with iced tea.)

By now you may be thinking that I’ve had too much thinking time on my hands lately, which may be true. I attribute it to all the cold weather and some cabin fever. The good news is that spring has sprung and I can finally remove the hat with earflaps. And maybe, as I watch the sideshow of Republicans running for president, I can quit looking for the elevator and just sit back and enjoy this rabbit holey-crap world as it gets curiouser and curiouser.

BTW, Harry Ransom Center’s exhibit on 150 Years of Alice in Wonderland continues through July 6th!

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The Patrick 55 and Super-Access Toll Road

Don’t expect a rosy report from me regarding Texas’s new all-guy crop of officials who took office last month. To feel any hope whatsoever, you need to be uber-Christian, gun loving, anti-women’s choice and equal pay, or a big business type. Although Texas is swimming in those flavors, I wear none of those labels, as you regular readers already know.

With disclaimers out of the way, let me tell you that it’s not easy picking the worst among our officialdom. For example, the new Commissioner of Agriculture immediately announced his support for cupcakes in schools to the delight of his cupcake-growing constituency and despair of those concerned about our growing (and growing) children. The new Attorney General Ken Paxton may still be indicted for the crime of undisclosed securities solicitation for which he’s already paid a pittance of a fine to the State Securities Board. Moreover, General Paxton has filled the top ranks of his office with guys from the Ted Cruz shop, thereby guaranteeing that the AG’s office will continue as a political vehicle to attack the federal government, particularly the Environmental Protection Agency.

This, of course, was Greg Abbott’s – our former AG’s – agenda.  Now that he’s moved on to the Governor’s mansion, he’s expressed his continued support to make sure Texas suffers from as much poisonous air as his big business donors see fit. This way, we can all get sick and suffocate to death free of the federal government’s interference. But, man, doesn’t it feel good to assert our state’s right to dirty air!!

dirty air

Even as bad as these guys sound, the prize for worst new officeholder goes to Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick who is keen on presiding over a theocracy. He’s outdone the other guys in religious fervor by wrapping himself in the flag of Jesus Christ and proclaiming that no separation exists between church and state. During the recent inauguration ceremonies Patrick told the assembled multitude, “I respect all faiths and religions, but I am a Christian first, a conservative second and a Republican third, and I praise Jesus for this moment and this day.” So, where does serving the citizens of Texas as a presiding officer of the Senate and advocate for democracy come in? Fourth, fifth, tenth?

Aside from his fixation on giving Jesus a seat at the table, Patrick gets more low marks with his plan to run the Senate with the aid of a group of (unelected) plutocrats. These movers and shakers in the business world have been appointed to six policy committees including the following: Economic and Workforce Development; Economic Forecasting; Energy/Oil and Gas Tax Policy; Transportation; and Water. And it should come as no surprise that the proceedings of these panels will remain closed to the public.


Patrick says the idea for the committees came to him during his campaign when meeting with “literally hundreds of successful businessmen and women from every kind of business one can imagine.” In short order, he was struck with the idea “that these entrepreneurs could be a valuable asset to the Texas Senate in helping craft policy initiatives. I began asking many of these business leaders (if I were elected), would they consider volunteering their time and expertise to address the major issues of today and tomorrow, that face Texas.”


Fifty-five of the invitees accepted his offer, all of them major donors to political causes. Some are Democrats, but most are Republican. Thirty-seven of them are listed as donating to the Dan Patrick campaign. Oil tycoon, billionaire T. Boone Pickens, head of the Energy advisory committee donated more than $30,000 in the last two years.

Mr. Pickens is joined on that committee by Tim Dunn, the money behind the conservative group Empower Texans, that donated more than $50,000 to Patrick’s campaign. On the Economic Forecasting panel is Fertitta Tilman who gave more than $100,000 in the name of Landry’s Restaurants. And Brint Ryan, head of Patrick’s tax policy advisory panel is a tax consultant specializing in helping companies like Raytheon and ExxonMobil win Texas tax breaks. Mr. Ryan donated $250,000 to Rick Perry’s presidential campaign effort alone.


In other words, Patrick’s anointed 55 are not neutral technocrats and disinterested business people, rather longtime GOP donors, and many who have a strong personal interest in what the state does and doesn’t do. As a whole, the six policy panels represent a potential rat’s nest of conflicts of interest and influence peddling, as one media source described it.

And try to control your gag reflex as you hear Patrick wax not-so eloquently and oh-so sympathetically about his new friends. As he explains, “Often in Texas, the private sector is asked for help by a candidate but after they get elected, there’s not much follow up.” How sad to think, he laments, that “a legislative body [would want] to disconnect themselves from the private sector.”

And get this novel (NOT) idea:  these people, he tells us, could “provide us with insight or new ideas that we haven’t thought of.” And just imagine, “. . . if we have an idea, a piece of legislation, they will tell us how [it will] work, how [it will] impact” their industries, says Patrick.  And better yet, these formerly voiceless plutocrats are so darn grateful! Patrick says that his group are “really excited about someone in Austin listening to what they have to say.” Are you gagging yet?

Unlike Senate committees that hear public testimony from any and all who have some insights or impacts to share on legislation, any ideas that the 55 generate in the form of a legislative proposal will be transmitted to the public via Lt. Gov. Patrick himself. Whew!! So glad he’s addressed our transparency concern!! In fact, he tells us, there’s one already! (Surprise!) The proposal would require that twenty percent of new vehicles purchased by Texas state agencies should run on CNG, compressed natural gas.

It takes little head-scratching to realize that this legislative proposal came from Energy panel head T. Boone Pickens, the same T. Boone Pickens who controls a California company called Clean Energy Fuels Corporation. And this would be the same company that is heavily invested in natural gas and seeks to become a leader in CNG. As of January of last year, Clean Energy was losing money and looking for new fleets of vehicles it could serve. Along comes the Patrick campaign soliciting donations, and Pickens found his solution.

t boone

Clearly, this is typical Texas influence peddling, but it has taken an unusual form, mostly because the new lieutenant governor really doesn’t like open government, or any government for that matter. In fact, he seems to think Texas government is so stale and infirm that he’s invited his new unelected friends to give us some guidance and new ideas (not to mention some bidding to do)!!

In a remarkable piece of hubris, even for Houston’s own blowhard radio jock, Patrick likens these panels to a “team of rivals,” as coined by Doris Kearns Goodwin for her book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genuis of Abraham Lincoln.” The members of that team included Lincoln and three other men, all of whom were opponents for the Republican nomination in 1860. Despite the other three’s disdain for Lincoln – based on his lack of formal education and backwoods upbringing – the new president subsequently invited the other three to serve in his cabinet as a way of disarming them.

Hence, Patrick’s description of his newly named panels as a team of rivals could not be more ludicrously misplaced. First, the team in Dr, Goodwin’s book were politicians, not business people and donors. Second, the members of Patrick’s informal committees are not rivals even in the business world, representing various industries and interests. Third, most are Republican party donors who consistently support the same candidates, including Patrick. Rivals? Maybe on the golf course.

As for any possible comparison to Lincoln and/or genius of any kind? I’m just waiting for Dr. Goodwin to stand up and say, “I know Abraham Lincoln, and you, Mr. Patrick, are no Abraham Lincoln.”


But even that put-down would likely have little impact on Patrick’s delusions of grandeur and his vision of being the ultimate puppet master of state government. Texas Monthly wrote in 2013 that during his seven years as senator, Patrick had little appreciation for legislative protocol and tradition. Explaining why he was named among the 10 worst legislators, the magazine said, “There are few types of lawmakers less helpful to the legislative process than bullies and ideologues. Unfortunately, Dan Patrick too often seemed to be both . . .”

His latest example – the empaneled 55 – exemplifies his willingness to eviscerate the established committee process of the Senate. Are the members and heads of the Senate committees – who Patrick himself appoints – going to be nothing more than paper tigers? Will they even get a glimpse of Mr. Pickens and hear what he might have to say about CNG?  Probably not.  Mr. Pickens already has his high-profile ear and mouthpiece, after all.

If you haven’t caught on by now, I’m not buying Patrick’s snake oil about these business leaders and their lack of legislative access. If anyone has access in Austin, it’s Patrick’s 55. His creation of a toll road for super access comes with the bonus of their not having to go on the public record, be questioned, opposed, or required to take an oath before testifying. They can tell him virtually anything.

toll road

Since we all know these folks aren’t voiceless, the real purpose of these private panels appears to be nothing more than a fancy payback for previous donations, along with securing their future donations. Patrick, you see, has charted himself a long political career.

I wonder how many among the Patrick 55 have figured out that they may have bought a candidate, but the reverse may also be true? Do these advisory panel appointments nail them firmly in his camp for the foreseeable future and serve to discourage even side-long glances at other candidates? Will they be able to speak out or even testify at a legislative committee (assuming they get a wild hair) without Patrick’s express consent? In other words, have they sold their free speech rights or, at least, given Patrick rights of first refusal in furtherance of his attack on democracy and secular government?

If nothing else, it will be interesting to see if Patrick has outsmarted these titans of industry and business, not to mention those tea partiers he had to dance with to get this far in his political career. And, we might want to see how far he can go before the thirty-one senators he presides over get tired of being treated as irrelevant. After all, the powers of the lieutenant governor are determined by the Senate itself, not state law. It would be fun to see them tell the emperor he is wearing no clothes.


Texas has long been the home of outrageous politicians, so it’s hard to entertain us with new tricks. But as the new legislative session gets warmed up, one has to admit that we are venturing into new territory with this lieutenant governor and his over-inflated balls. We just have to control our gag reflexes!

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