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!!

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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.

Trump

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).

cruz

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?”

jerk

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!

George.bush

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.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

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.

Railroad.tex

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.

John_H_Reagan

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!

Posted in History | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

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.

weather

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.)

Paxton

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.

attys

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.

license

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.”

Freedom.religion

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.

Duck

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?

gohmert

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!

shieffer.two

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 Peepsqueeze.com.

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??

rubberneck

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.”

boehner.news

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!)

jets

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?

lemon.tea

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.

plutocracy

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

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.

plutocrats

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.”

Doris

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.

emperor

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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How I Decided to Live with my Bibliophilism

Talk about futility. I thought I had almost made it through the end of the year and holiday season with my addiction under control. As you probably realize from the title, I don’t shop or eat fruit cakes in excess – my addiction is acquiring books and, often, even reading them.

biblio

My bibliophilism is bad enough year-round, but the end of the year is particularly challenging because the media goes full blast about the year’s best books. Just flip open a magazine, the Sunday arts section of a newspaper, or log on to your computer’s home page this time of year and you’re confronted with lists of the year’s 10 or 20 best books. Popping into my inbox were at least 15 lists and reviews from folks at NPR, Amazon, Goodreads, the Huffington Post, etc.

Simply put, lists and book reviews are hard for me to ignore.  Ever since my mother kickstarted my reading life with the likes of Black Beauty, The Black Stallion, Little Women, and Nancy Drew mysteries, I’ve been a seeker of good reads. And when my 17-year-old self stumbled on to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, a.k.a. the Great American Novel, my fate was sealed. Fitzgerald opened a portal to writing perfection and implanted me with an unquenchable hunger for more of the same.  I still mourn his early demise.

So,  generally, I peruse the lists and read reviews in equal parts, fear and desire. Desire, of course, to find the next book that will take my breath away, but fear that I will reach the tipping point of owning books that I’ll never have time to read in this lifetime.

(And before you can say, Kindle, Nook, or iPad, I’m afraid any device downloads would soon be forgotten with other distractions, i.e., emails, Facebook, games of Solitaire or the challenging Scrabble games with my friend, LMc, who keeps beating me!!)

But with bulging bookcases, I tried to turn a new leaf and exercise even more control this year, avoiding the best of 2014 lists, and adopting a new strategy with my biggest temptation: the Texas Book Festival in November that jumpstarts the end of year book craziness for me. I can resist browsing the tents with tables upon tables of books, but the presentations by the authors who come to talk about their latest book are so compelling, I usually purchase their books afterwards.  This means I generally leave the fair with 4 or 5 books hoping that someday they will find their way from the bookshelf to my night table. (One of these days, Bob Edwards, I’m going to get to your Voice in the Box, which I’m dying to read – all appearances to the contrary.)

book festival

Accordingly, I decided to attend presentations by authors who interested me but whose books wouldn’t tempt me into a purchase for various reasons. I chose Martin Amis because despite his mastery of prose, I’ve read a couple of his books recently and didn’t feel any urgency for his latest about a WW II concentration camp from the German viewpoint. As another untempting choice, I opted to see Valerie Plame Wilson, who has segued from the real outed CIA agent, Valerie, in Fair Game, into co-author of a series about a fictional female CIA agent, Vanessa, in Burned, Blowback.  She may be the next Robert Ludlum, but I have my doubts. Also, I chose to see Jon Meachum, who was hawking an adaptation for young readers of his recent biography of Thomas Jefferson, which I had recently “read” via audiobook from the public library.

This strategy worked pretty well with the first two speakers, but Jon Meachum, former editor in chief of Newsweek, contributing editor of Time, and Pulitzer Prize winner for his biography of Andrew Jackson, was another story.

meachum

As I said, I had already read Meachum’s book, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. But as I listened to his presentation (so humorous and witty!), I realized I might have missed an important message. The recent trend in our public life, particularly among young people, Meachum explained, is to compartamentalize politics from the culture at large as if it were a dirty truth that most be kept separate from our everyday lives. But we all need to participate in the public arena, particularly young people, in order to shape our society in consonance with cultural ideals. Studying Jefferson, you realize that a 33-year-old man did not write the Declaration of Independence in a cultural vacuum. He was formed and informed by the significant cultural movements (e.g., the Enlightenment, Reformation, etc.) of the 17th and 18th centuries that were in common currency in the young America. In short, Meachum warns that our national life will suffer dire consequences unless young Americans participate in our democracy.

art of power

That’s all it took. I realized I needed to visit the book again, that it was too important for a quick listen. So, I found myself standing in the book signing tent in the shadow of the Capitol, rationalizing the purchase as a vote for democracy. It was just one book, after all. For my country, no less.

After my book fair success (all things being relative), the rest of November and December was touch and go, but mostly successful. I was actually adhering to my resolution. That is, until late December when I hit a fork in the road and picked the wrong path.

It was such an innocent mistake, but one I could have avoided if I had given it serious thought.  But if anything is to blame, it’s Austin traffic. While driving, you see, I avoid negative and destructive thoughts about our mind-boggling traffic by listening to audio books, e.g., the Thomas Jefferson biography. Usually, I reserve books at the library from one of my wish lists, but at the time, none of my selections were yet available and I stopped by my library branch to browse among the shelves for something that looked appealing. Finding nothing among the fiction audiobook offerings, I ended up in the biography/autobiography section and saw one written by Pat Conroy called My Reading Life, which looked interesting.

Pat conroy

(Here’s where I failed to think this through. Pat Conroy is a fabulous writer, one whose prose often borders on poetry. You might be familiar with his Beach Music, The Great Santini, or Prince of Tides.  But his autobiography was written not so much about himself directly, but rather, about the influential people, teachers, books, and writers who influenced his desire to write and his appreciation of good writing. A recipe for disaster or what?)

When I wasn’t rapt by his stories, I was laughing with delight or wistful because I didn’t have a high school English teacher like his. And, Conroy, who read the audio book himself, had a mother like mine who loved books and made sure her children loved reading equally. He also had a bibliophilic love affair with Thomas Wolfe, much like mine with Fitzgerald. After Wolfe, he found a new hero to worship in poet (and author of Deliverance) James Dickey. Later, he reveled in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which he considers the greatest novel ever written (and a must-read for all world leaders contemplating war).

Although I wavered several times as I listened to the book, he had not shaken my resolve to avoid purchasing any new books. But, close to the end, he delivered the coup de grace to all my resolve with the following passage:

I cheer when a writer stops me in my tracks, forces me to go back and read a sentence again and again, and I find myself thunderstruck, grateful the way readers always are when a writer takes the time to put them on the floor. That’s what a good book does – it puts readers on their knees. It makes you want to believe in a world you just read about – the one that will make you feel different about the world you thought you lived in, the world that will never be the same.

Oh, Mr. Conroy, yes, yes, yes!! That’s what it’s about!

I saw, then, my folly. I could not be my bibliophilic self and repudiate my own quest to find those books and be, perhaps, thunderstruck with gratitude that a particular book existed for me to find and read.  No way.

So, I finished listening to Conroy’s book. Then, I clicked open Amazon.com and ordered a copy of My Reading Life to incorporate and consult in my reading life.  To acquaint myself with James Dickey’s poetry, I bought the volume that Conroy reads from every morning before starting to write. Similarly, Thomas Wolfe’s  Look Homeward Angel will be arriving in my mail box soon.

war and peace

But what to do about War and Peace? I’m embarrassed to say I’ve tried to read it many times since high school, but have never made much headway. I’ll have to develop some tactics for tackling it because if my reading soul mate is right, it is the greatest novel ever written –and, heaven knows, I’ll never make peace with myself until I’ve read it. So, I’m sorry to tell you tomes on my book shelves that you will just have to be patient a while longer. I’ve ordered some new books and I must read them first.

But I have a solution:  I’ll just resolve to live a little longer!

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Do More than Think: VOTE!

I almost started my entry today with one of my long musings on a subject, specifically, one extolling the virtues of democracy and fulfilling our obligations as good citizens by being good voters. But I decided you deserved something pithier, knowing how many things you have on your mind: like how you will vote.

And if you’ve voted already, you are thinking about how your candidates will fare. If you live in Texas, you are probably wondering whether we’ll have our second elected woman governor and the first woman Lieutenant Governor, who happens to be a Latina. Those of us in Austin are sitting on the edge of our seats wondering about whether our co-Austinites will vote to authorize our first attempt at light rail and how much our taxes will go up as a result. And, I haven’t felt this much anxiety about a race in Kansas since . . . well, never.

So, here’s my short and heartfelt reasons to vote in this election (with thanks to Rene Descartes):

I desire
I aspire
I hope
I dream for fairer tomorrows,
Therefore, I vote

I breathe
I believe
I need
I grieve for our planet,
Therefore, I vote.

I sicken
I fear
I fight
I empathize with other’s plights,
Therefore, I vote

I’m a woman
I’m a mother
I’m a grandmother
I love and am loved,
Therefore, I vote

I think, therefore I vote.
Cogito ergo sum.

richards.2

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Feminism, Thy Name is not Beyoncé

It shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that I’ve long considered myself a feminist.  I also thought that I could identify a sister feminist when I saw one.  I would not have picked Taylor Swift as one, but in September’s Rolling Stone, I was surprised to read that, in fact, she considers herself a feminist. That little gal in pigtails who pops up from the bowels of the stage and prances around with pigtails and a guitar? Sure, she’s a gal with a good heart who goes out of her way to please her fans (teenage girls), but, seriously, does she have any feminist credentials?

Girls creator Lena Dunham says she does: “She runs a company. She creates music that connects with women, and no one is in control of her. If that’s not feminism, what is?” Hmm . . . let me ponder that, Lena.

But, even more strange, was Beyoncé’s claim of sisterhood. If you caught her at the Video Music Awards, you saw her sing, “Bow down, Bitches,” then, in big lights, the single word Feminist appears!

Beyonce 2

The VMAs typically fly under my radar screen, but I got caught up on the Beyoncé appearance while listening to NPR’s talk show, On Point, with Tom Ashbrook. He posed the question to his “experts” and the public at large: Is Beyoncé a Feminist? I hadn’t seen the awards show, so I was intrigued . . . what a question!  I expected there to be a real difference of opinion about this performer who seems to be selling sex as much as her music. In fact, I thought there’d be quite a few guffaws at the notion.  So, needless to say, I was dumbfounded when no one was laughing; most guests expressed agreement with Beyoncé’s adoption of the feminist label. Even the moderator, Ashbrook seemed to forego his normal role as devil’s advocate repeatedly during the show. He even ended the segment with a rousing “Go, Beyonce!!”

What was I missing? The consensus on Ashbrook’s show seemed to center on the fact that Beyoncé controls her own business, career, and body.  Hence, she’s a feminist.   She meets the Lena Dunham standard.

But, doesn’t being a feminist mean more than running your own business as a performer and calling the shots creatively. After all, these gals aren’t running Bank of America. They are just running their own lives as creative artists.  Isn’t that what a lot of female artists do, e.g., Cher or Madonna? And what feminist issue are they advancing? Certainly not equal pay for equal work, since these megastars are paid very well for their efforts.  If they are pushing any particular cause of benefit to regular women, any message gets lost in all the glamour and glitz.

I was glad to see, therefore, that it wasn’t just me, a grumpy old woman in Austin, with these questions. Singer Annie Lennox also questioned the feminist label as claimed by Beyoncé and other women performers:  I see a lot of it as them taking the word hostage and using it to promote themselves, but I don’t think they necessarily represent wholeheartedly the depths of feminism. I think for many it’s very convenient and it looks great and it looks radical, but . . .  I think it’s a cheap shot.

In regards to their sexually-charged lyrics, Lennox went on to say: I think what they do with it is cheap. What can I tell you? Sex always sells. And there’s nothing wrong with sex selling, but it depends on your audience. If they’re 7-year-old kids, I have issues with it.

Lennox

It was refreshing, therefore, to see a young actress describing feminism and advocating for it in a form and forum that made sense. Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame who has been designated a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for women, helped launch the “HeForShe” campaign which aims to galvanize one billion men and boys as advocates for ending the inequalities that women and girls face globally.

Emma

In a speech at the U.N. that was met with a thunderous standing ovation, she explained her own confusion about feminism:

I decided I was a feminist and this seemed uncomplicated to me. But my recent research has shown me that feminism has become an unpopular word. . .

Why is the word such an uncomfortable one? I am from Britain and think it is right that as a woman I am paid the same as my male counterparts. I think it is right that I should be able to make decisions about my own body. I think it is right that women be involved on my behalf in the policies and decision-making of my country. I think it is right that socially I am afforded the same respect as men. But sadly I can say that there is no one country in the world where all women can expect to receive these rights.

In short, she explains, feminism is about the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.

Emma 2

As I looked more into her UN appearance and the HeForShe campaign, I learned that it is designed as a reaction to the Women Against Feminism movement. A Tumblr for this movement features women holding photos of themselves with signs explaining why they don’t need feminism, e.g., “I don’t need feminism . . . my boyfriend treats me right.” Similar inanities have popped up on Twitter and Facebook, where the Women Against Feminism page boasts more than 16,000 likes!! I was stunned.

Obviously, I needed Google to update my thinking on feminism. Search results educated me about the three waves of feminism, with the first beginning in the late 1800s centering on suffrage issues, along with equal property, marriage, and contract rights.

Suffrage

The second wave was characterized by “The Personal is Political” slogan which was meant to clarify that aspects of women’s personal lives were deeply politicized and reflecting sexist power structures, e.g., women clean and cook, men don’t.  We are now in the third wave (started in early 1990s) which seems to be a hodgepodge of views, including a backlash against the second wave.  It also celebrates female sexuality as a means of female empowerment. One article referred to it as “f…g and shopping feminism.” If I understand it correctly, the gals in Sex and the City are perfect role models for third wave feminism — with the exception of Charlotte who represented the confused-about-feminism woman. Apparently, it’s largely about shopping, having sex like a man, and being your own boss at work.

sex & city

If this is the current definition of feminist, I guess Beyoncé can call herself one, even while I remain uncomfortable with the notion that a woman with so much power to influence young women would center her career around sexual titillation. You can say that her music is the defining characteristic of her career, but you’d be confusing Adele with Beyoncé. Music is her side act – the focus is on the body, the provocative dancing, the face, the hair, the image!  [Remind me, why didn’t Beyonce, the songbird, sing the national anthem at President Obama’s inaugural?]

adele.2Beyonce

As for the third wavers in general, I believe the feminist movement has been trivialized by women who think it’s all about “f…g and shopping.” The reality of what women in the working world face and why feminism is important was made manifest this past week at a gathering of female engineers at Microsoft. The speaker at this gathering was Satya Nadella, the male CEO of Microsoft, who was asked what advice he would give women who are uncomfortable asking for raises. His response: “It’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that this system will actually give you the right raises as you go along.” Nadella went on to say that women who don’t ask for raises obtain an “additional superpower . . . because that’s good karma, it’ll come back.” Whoa, grasshoppers!!

nadella

Just wondering, Satya, how many bills can you pay with a big helping of karma? Or, more pointedly, would you have given the same advice to a group of men? Hell, no!! In fact, the question wouldn’t have come up because men don’t feel uncomfortable asking for raises!

I’m hoping that we are about to see a fourth wave of feminism, one that recognizes that most women cannot be their own boss, must learn to ask for raises, and don’t get paychecks that will purchase mass quantities of shoes at Nordstrom, much less at the Manolo Blahnik stores. Maybe it will be led by women of the millennial generation, those who still struggle with getting raises and promotions despite the value they bring to their workplaces, the young women who are lapping up bestselling books like Knowing your Value (Mika Brzezinski) and Lean In (Sheryl Sandberg).

mika sheryl

In fact, Emma Watson has made a great start, as one of those leaders.  As she so eloquently told the United Nations’ assembly:

You might be thinking who is this Harry Potter girl? And what is she doing up on stage at the UN. . . All I know is that I care about this problem. And I want to make it better.

And having seen what I’ve seen—and given the chance—I feel it is my duty to say something. English statesman Edmund Burke said: “All that is needed for the forces of evil to triumph is for enough good men and women to do nothing.”

And as one feminist looking for others to take the baton, I’ll just say, “Sing it from the rooftops, Emma!!! Yours is a voice worth hearing and a body worth seeing – right there on the frontline of feminism!!!” Go, Emma!!

Posted in Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments