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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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.


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.


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 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.


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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.


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.


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.


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?]


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!!


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

The Violation of Viola

Right up front I’ll admit to having few credentials as a television or entertainment critic. On the other hand, I’ve read many reviews that make me question the credentials of others. I figure if you can articulate your opinion and a few significant whys and wherefores in support of it, anyone can be a critic . . . at least on their own blog!

Frankly, many television shows I’ve liked were not big hits. For example, Paul Haggis’s EZ Streets, starring Ken Olin and Joe Pantoliano, didn’t even air an entire season. While nine episodes were shot, the show was rudely axed from the schedule after the eighth one, as if it were a tub of rotting fish.  Not even a hint of closure.

EZ streets

Also, Civil Wars with Mariel Hemingway, Debi Mazur, and Alan Rosenberg, produced by Steven Bochco, didn’t last long. The show featured a partnership of divorce attorneys in Manhattan in which one of the partners played by Rosenberg (Levi) has suffered a nervous breakdown. The budding relationship between Mariel and the new partner, Peter Onorati, along with Levi’s attempts to put back the pieces of his professional life were beautifully nuanced.

civil wars

Another favorite was Once and Again with Sela Ward and Billy Campbell, portraying a newly divorced single mom with two daughters who meets a single dad with his own children and problems. Interspersed throughout each episode were “interview” sequences filmed in black and white, in which the characters would reveal their innermost thoughts and memories to the camera. Alas, it only lasted a season or two.


And then, there was Jack and Bobby, a faux documentary on WB network about the lives of two brothers, one who would grow up to be president in 2041, starring the wonderful Christine Lahti as their mother and college professor. Unknown Bradley Cooper played one of her TAs and potential love interest.  Both the premise and the execution were television at its finest.  One season.


So, in case you haven’t already fired me as an entertainment critic, let me give you another reason:   Law & Order grates on my every last nerve. Even if you don’t mind that the police officers regularly arrest suspects by violating their constitutional protections, a viewer must put up with lawyers in the courtroom behaving badly, i.e., getting away with antics no judge would tolerate in a real court. Sam Waterston takes high dudgeon to new levels, badgering witnesses, pontificating, and grandstanding, which may be the way they practice law in New York court rooms, but I kind of doubt it. It’s just too irritating and implausible for me to watch.

Finally, if you are still with me, let me tell you about the new ABC show, How to Get Away with Murder, which was on the rave list of several (professional) television critics.  They apparently liked the show and gave Viola Davis high praise for her portrayal of a criminal law professor. As I think Viola Davis is a great actress and spent three years in law school, I thought it would be an interesting walk down memory lane, if nothing else.

Prof keating

Not only was it a far cry from the Paper Chase – it wasn’t even in the same universe.  Viola Davis as Annalise Keating, is more than a law school professor teaching first-year criminal law – outside the classroom she is also a criminal defense attorney! And, in this first episode, she’s on the eve of trial, defending a woman accused of murder. This also happens to be the first day of the fall semester.  Accordingly, she tells her class full of eager young men and women – who are still finding their way around the school, getting moved in, etc. – about the facts of her case and invites them to come up with ideas for defending this woman. Whichever five or six students think of the best ideas get to participate on the defense team.  Do I really need to point out, there are soooo many things wrong with this picture?

To begin with, first-year law students, with merely the first day of class under their belt, have no more knowledge about the law than the little they may have gleaned from Law & Order (not much). They are usually ignorant about both trial and pre-trial procedure, e.g., discovery, motions in limine, privileges, etc. Legal research is not yet in their skill set – Lexis and Westlaw passwords are probably still in the mail. To underscore this fact, one of the chosen students thinks he’s found a winning strategy after the first day of trial.  He excitedly suggests that she could go for a directed verdict (meaning that there is no legally sufficient evidence to allow a reasonable jury to reach a contrary conclusion) because she managed to discredit one of the prosecution’s witnesses on cross-examination. A directed verdict, of course, is nothing new to any trial lawyer, and Professor Keating appropriately rejects it out of hand. But one has to ask:  Why is she wasting time with these students?  Simply put, no trial attorney (even a part-time law school professor) would turn a murder trial into a learning exercise for newly-seated law students!!

In fact, these students, at the outset of their legal education, need to have their butts sitting in the rest of their first-year classes: Torts, Property, Constitutional Law, Contracts, and Civil Procedure classes. One gal (apparently the smartest among the trial team six) expresses some concern about her other classes, but Professor Keating cuts her down with rapier swiftness about being a real lawyer. Can’t she be a real law student first, Professor?

law books

Frankly, law professors fall all along the arrogance spectrum (which is good training for dealing with judges) but I can assure you, the rest of the faculty wouldn’t put up with Professor Keating very long. It’s clear that she is one who disdains traditional legal education and her colleagues, as well. And not to the benefit of her students.

If you need more implausibility, did I mention that the Professor goes to a cocktail party one night in the middle of the trial? If you are in the thick of any trial, much less a murder trial, I can guarantee you that the attorneys are not out partying and drinking. You barely have time to eat or sleep.

Perhaps the worst part of the show was watching what she did to a detective she had called as a witness. I’d hate to spoil it for you (in case this show is still on your DVR and I haven’t discouraged you from running it), but suffice it to say that she manipulated him into a compromising position a few days earlier and then, completely blindsided him on the stand, probably destroying him professionally and his department. It was pretty disgusting.

As for the subplot with the trial team students who become involved in a murder, I’m sure it is partly designed to distract viewers from the preposterousness of Professor Keating’s law practice and teaching methods. I’m not sure that their predicament will make the show watchable, but I will say that these kids would be better serving time in prison rather than serving a whole semester in Keating’s class and experiencing the soul murder that she would exact.

And speaking of the soul, I wonder if anyone else is offended by her character’s name: Professor Keating? The last Professor Keating in entertainment history was Robin Williams’s character in Dead Poet’s Society. If this is some cute attempt by the show’s creators to suggest that there is any commonality (beyond the employment of unorthodox teaching methods), I will hereby correct them.  There is no comparison. John Keating filled souls. Annalise Keating drains them.


In conclusion, it’s always sad to see talent wasted and in this case, to see the skills of a very good actress employed in furtherance of such ludicrous and outrageous nonsense.  With my track record, however, it will probably be a big hit.  Bets, anyone?

Posted in Television, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Who are the Excuse Makers?

One of the disturbing truths about higher education seems to be that we, as a society, and colleges, as institutions, have yet to educate young men that it’s a bad idea to force yourself on young women. Protection from the seas of unrestrained testosterone that leave young women at risk of sexual assault, seems to have hardly improved since my college days. California, for example, just passed the “yes means yes” bill defining consensual sex as “an affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity” and requiring its adoption as policy by universities and colleges.


Although we hear about the more notorious cases such as the recent ones involving two UT football players, the problem is surely not confined to athletes. Hard and fast statistics on the size of the problem, however, are not available. A survey by Senator Claire McCaskill, found that more than 40 percent of colleges and universities admitted that they have not conducted a single sexual assault investigation in the past five years.  President Obama recently launched a national effort to help colleges gauge the scope of the problem and institute certain protections for the victims.  The Campus Safety and Accountability Act, introduced by a bipartisan group of eight U.S. senators including Senator McCaskill, requires universities to address the issue of sexual assault seriously. Universities receiving federal funds (nearly all of them) would have to conduct “climate surveys” to better estimate numbers of incidents and measure student awareness of available help. Progress would be tracked with yearly updates, published online. Also, strict protocols are required for investigating allegations that would prevent athletic departments, for instance, from meddling with sexual assault investigations. Failure to comply with the law would subject campuses to stiff financial penalties — up to 1 percent of their operating budgets.

While I applaud these efforts unequivocally, I suspect that the size of the problem will remain undiscovered. Based on my experience, I think female coeds often resist reporting assaults to their best friends, much less the authorities, for a variety of reasons.

Part of the problem is shame and culpability in our victimization.  In our days, raised by mothers who grew up in the 40s, we worried about being branded a “bad girl,” or whether we had “asked for it” by making out, drinking alcohol, wearing too-enticing outfits, or even accepting a gift or an expensive dinner invite. Basically, we grew up with the notion that “boys are going to be boys” (if not worse), so we had to use good sense and keep our date in line with our own good behavior.

This type of thinking lives on.  Mary Sanchez, a columnist for the Kansas City Star, notes how it pervades our culture:

If we want to do something about sexual assault on college campuses, first we have to deal with the excuse-makers. These are the people who belittle sexual assault as youthful hanky-panky taken a little too far, who dismiss statistics of personal accounts as exaggerated or shrill. The worst are those who suggest the problem is victims who “ask” to be sexually violated by wearing certain clothes or drinking alcohol.

So, if the guy doesn’t behave, he has an excuse — the gal messed up!! Among the episodes I remember way too well from the dating battles of my college years is one that demonstrates how hard it is for the victim herself to square the circle of blame . . . even years later.

We were sophomores and my good friend was dating the captain of a UT athletic team, which came with the duty of trying to find dates, periodically, for team parties. The first time she approached, I thought it might be fun, so I accepted a party date with team member, Jim T.  At first, he seemed nice and a bit quiet, but once we got to the party he turned into an octopus with eight arms grabbing and groping me. I fended him off the whole evening, returning his physical offense with my physical defense and some creativity, mostly involving threats to scream. Fortunately, I was able to restrain his advances beyond a certain point, suffering no physical harm beyond some really sore arm muscles.

You’d think I’d avoid him after that. But a month or so later, I was asked to be Jim’s date, again. My friend was very persuasive, suggesting that her relationship with the captain hinged on my cooperation. Reluctantly, I agreed with the optimistic hope that he’d be less hands-on this time. Suffice it to say that it was an instant replay of the previous date.

And then – to show you how stupid young women can be – months later I went out with him a third time. Maybe I believed that, at least, he wouldn’t push any further than he had before and I could continue to put up the same resistance and get through it. Fortunately, I was right, but after that third time, no amount of persuasion could get me to agree to another wrestling match.

I should have reported him to his coach or complained to the captain, but I didn’t want to upset my friend. Also, since no actual intercourse was at issue, I could hear them telling me how these athletes need an outlet after hard practices,  release from competitive focus, blah, blah, blah.  Moreover, there was my assumption of the risk. I had agreed to additional dates with this guy, so I wasn’t caught unawares after the first date.   Glad it was just a close call, I accepted my partial blame, and walked away.

I was surprised, however, to revisit my experience with Jim T about 15 years later. A coworker at my office mentioned that her 4-year-old daughter had a pediatrician’s appointment that afternoon. A mother of two young children myself, I asked her the name of her pediatrician and was told that it was James T.  I was startled – could this be Jim T, the same grabber-groper of females? When I asked her whether he was a member of a certain UT athletic team in the 70s, she recalled seeing athletic trophies of some sort in his office, so it was likely. Had I known him, she asked?

My thoughts caromed against each other.  Should I say, “Yes, and, by the way, he subjected me to the most aggressive grope-over I ever experienced?” That he was a threat to young women everywhere? But this was before the internet and I couldn’t really be sure he was that Jim T . . . and surely, he couldn’t be practicing medicine if he were a danger to children. Plagued with doubts, I just said he might be a guy I went out with a few times in college.

Evidently, my poker face was good enough that she never suspected my consternation about him. Returning from the appointment, she reported that she had told him about me and then, “he said the most curious thing.” “What was that?” I asked. He simply said, she related, “to tell you he was sorry.”

Of course, she wondered what that was about, but I feigned memory loss on the subject.  And while I remembered the reason he was apologizing all too well, I admit that I was a bit astonished that he remembered, too.


So, why didn’t I just tell her of my experience with him and let her decide if she wanted him as her daughter’s doctor? After all, he opened the door to that disclosure by giving her the message, and certainly, he was not excusing his actions, otherwise he wouldn’t have apologized (even third-hand). Was the apology a plea for my silence?

I still wonder about that silence. Did I keep quiet because I was convinced that his regrets were sufficient punishment and I was vindicated by his admission of fault? Did I believe some kind of moral statute of limitations had run, preventing my complaints at this late date? Was his status as a doctor irrefutable evidence that he had reformed? Was I giving him a pass because he could have done much worse if he had wanted to – given his strength and size – and, I should be thankful that he refrained from that? Had it been reasonable at the time to interpret my acquiescence in the two additional dates as a form of consent to his advances?

Or, was I simply one of the excuse-makers??

Even though actual rape was not involved,  there is no question that he committed a battery, i.e., applying non-consensual force that resulted in either bodily injury or an offensive touching, that left a small scar in my psyche.  But, the reality is that part of me can’t forgive my own behavior:  going out with him three times.  Even though it was purely a favor for a friend, he didn’t know it.  On some level, he could have very well believed I enjoyed fighting him off.  But, sad to say, he was not the absolute worst. And they all remain unreported because I felt that the young man’s excuses had some validity, i.e., that I had at least some responsibility for what transpired and was ashamed of my own stupidity.

So, will colleges and universities ever obtain accurate numbers of the problem?  I have my doubts.  Somehow, we need to raise young women who are much smarter than I was . . . who know that there is no reason to put yourself in a situation where you aren’t respected. No date, party, or event is worth it.

But, thinking about raising young men, I think my history with Jim T should serve as a cautionary tale in this world of social media.  Imagine a college career of roughing up women, and then later, becoming a pediatrician, and just one of those women, still pissed off about what he did, decides that now is the time for her revenge.  And “now” could be at any time, just as your career is beginning . . . or ending.  Fortunately for Jim T — who is still practicing medicine — I have almost accepted his apology.

Posted in Women | Tagged , , , , | 12 Comments

The Children, the President, and the Lady

Recently, the right-wing media and their favorite politicians lambasted President Obama for not taking a quick field trip to the Texas/Mexico border. They were suggesting that as long as he was in Austin, he was already “in the neighborhood,” and therefore, it was some kind of dereliction of duty unless he personally reviewed the situation of the Central American children — so he could truly comprehend it, I suppose.  With righteous indignation, they compared his refusal to Bush opting for a birds-eye pass over the scene of Katrina damage.  Sadly, it took the senseless downing of a civilian plane and child killings in Gaza to quell this endless loop of rants about a border trip.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to identify these ravings as nothing more than political theater that would have certainly morphed into cries for impeachment if the other tragedies had not interceded.  Of course, Congressional Republicans are now experts on what they think the President’s job duties are; they’ve shown themselves clueless about their own jobs, of course.  The reality is (if anyone wants to go there) that the louder they yell about Obama doing or not doing something, the more suspicious we need to be about their motives.  In this case, the trip would be so unwarranted and unwise, the plot to trap the President couldn’t be more obvious.  Why wouldn’t this trip be an appropriate one for the President to make?  I thought of about four reasons.

1.) There is no particular necessity or justification for the presidential presence at the border now. The President doesn’t need more information.  He is fully informed and has no problem with numerical concepts. Since 2011, the administration has been aware of – and taking certain measures in conjunction with – the increasing numbers of unaccompanied minors coming to our border to escape gang violence (70,000 gang members in Honduras alone), corruption, and poverty in Central America. President Obama has already done what he can by asking Congress to appropriate funds to address this situation. The ball is now decidedly in Congress’s court.

Also, President Obama cannot say or promise much to these children, most of whom will probably be deported under our laws. Maybe a papal visit with blessings and fatherly love would be meaningful to the young people. Meanwhile, they’d probably be more excited to get some more good meals, a safe place to stay, and a good rest, no matter who comes to say howdy.

As for visiting the border patrol agents . . . I hardly think they deserve a presidential clap on the shoulder to keep up their morale and esprit d’ corps.  If they were dealing with armed insurgents, that might justify a trip (like the one to Afghanistan). But border agents are detaining children, many of whom are glad to surrender to someone who isn’t going to hurt them. No medals for bravery are going to be needed here.

border agent


2.) The Texas/Mexico border is NOT just down the road from Austin. This isn’t a situation where the President visited Manhattan and refused to go to Brooklyn.  If you google the square footage of Texas, you might also discover that within its borders, Texas could accommodate Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Vermont, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Maryland, West Virginia, South Carolina, Maine, Indiana, and still have room for a good chunk of Kentucky.  The predominant Texas border crossing point is in Mission, a little over 300 miles from Austin – about the same distance between Philadelphia and Boston, two cities with New York City in between and not considered shouting distance from each other.


3.) A border trip at the time would have put the President’s safety at risk. I’m not equating the border region with a third-world country. . . only suggesting that any venue or detainment camp would be difficult to secure, particularly upon such short notice. Usually, advance teams begin work to secure a venue at least a week before a visit. For example, for the public address in Austin, the agreement to appear at the Paramount Theater was finalized about a week in advance.

But, I hear you ask, how can he just drop in at Franklin’s Barbeque unexpectedly? Your question contains the answer: “drop in…unexpectedly.” As explained in Jodi Kantor’s account of presidential life in her book, The Obamas, the Secret Service must sweep and secure any place the president visits unless he is making an unexpected, unscheduled visit. That exception is made because the element of surprise provides virtually the same level of security as an advance team can accomplish for a scheduled appearance. With the 3 Ps (Perry, pundits, and politicians) ranting about the need for him to visit the border, no trip to the Texas border would have been surprising.

4.) A surge of unaccompanied children from Central America is NOTHING like the Katrina disaster. In case you, too, are under any misapprehensions about Katrina (because you were in a coma that year), let me explain that the iconic city of New Orleans was virtually decimated. Katrina is the costliest natural disaster, as well as one of the five deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history, killing 1,833 people and damaging property to the tune of about $108 billion. Its residents, homeless in the aftermath of the storm, became refugees in their own country.

President Obama has not avoided personal visits when a large disaster involves American citizens and when he can reasonably help by consoling its victims and assuring them that they are not alone – that help is on the way. You saw President Obama visiting the Texas coast during the BP oil spill disaster and in New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy — where Americans lost their lives, homes, livelihoods, and sense of safety and security.  He brought the reassurance that only the presence of the President can provide.


Nothing even remotely like those disasters is occurring on the Texas border. Our citizens on the border are not threatened by an influx of children who need nothing more than food and lodging until they can receive the appropriate due process our laws require. No Americans will suffer loss of life, livelihood, or even a single night’s sleep because of this wave of border-crossers.  (Some of the picket-wielding, chanting/screaming protestors might keel over from heatstroke or apoplexy while they act like zombies were invading . . . zombies with the Ebola virus.)

So, what was it that the right wingers wanted from a presidential visit to the border?   They wanted photographs!  Photos of him with the children.  Photos to serve as “evidence” that President Obama “planned” this insurgency of minors and that, by such a visit, he was welcoming all who had heeded his Siren’s call to cross our borders illegally. The President, naturally, would have looked sympathetic and fatherly because it’s not his nature to be stern and forbidding with any children. much less those who have been through the travails that these children have. The right wingers would point to him smiling down on the multitudes as if admiring his handiwork.  Voila! Another Obama conspiracy revealed!

Frankly, we’ve seen the right-wing bait-and-switch so many times it would have been political malpractice for President Obama to fall for this trap.  Significantly, besides Rick Perry, no other Republicans are flying down to the border for fact-finding or even riding around in the border boat with Perry, looking simultaneously dorky and threatening (with machine guns at their ready.


As for these children, one can only imagine the ordeals they’ve had to survive to arrive to this promised land. No doubt much innocence has been jettisoned along the journey north, resulting in young people older and wiser than when they started their trek. Unfortunately, the country they sought and eventually accessed – the one known for inviting the tired, poor, and huddled masses yearning to breathe free – is actually teaming with citizens, pundits, and politicians more childish than they. . . people who can’t see beyond their own selfishness, political agendas, ratings, and ignorance.  It seems that President Obama is the only adult in the room and, unfortunately, he can only do so much without the help of a functioning Congress — instead of this one that seems hell-bent to sabotage him (and don’t forget, sue and impeach him).

Undoubtedly for us all, while politicians play their political games in the midst of this humanitarian crisis that awaits their action, we’ve lost something more enduring than the childhood innocence of those huddled at our border.   Sadly, we’ve also lost the legacy of the Lady in the harbor who has beckoned so many to risk everything and find a way to America’s shining shores.


Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Our Dysfunction Junction, Altar Boys, and the ERA

Like most Americans, I have never found reason to question the notion that our founding fathers, endowed with genius, forged a virtually perfect foundation upon which to create a more perfect union of states and individuals within a republic. Until recently, I thought of the U.S. Constitution as sacrosanct, much like the Bible for Christians.  It never occurred to me to ask whether, as imperfect people, we’d be better off with a little less – or different kinds of – perfection in our union.


In the UT Law magazine, I ran across an interesting article on that subject, “Reframing the Constitution,” by Sanford Levinson, a UT Law constitutional law professor.  There, Professor Levinson reveals his concerns about whether the Constitution still fits our needs. He quickly points out that his questioning the Constitution is not a form of secular blasphemy, but rather, something the founding fathers had in mind all along. Knowing that the Constitution would need improvement in order to perpetuate its central values, he explains, that the drafters specifically included procedures for amending the Constitution in Article V, “including calling a brand-new constitutional convention.”

Professor Levinson then explains why we should now call for such a convention to “renew” the Constitution. He points to the predominant belief that Congress is dysfunctional and poll findings of a 63% majority in this country that believe it is going in the wrong direction. He allows for the fact that these perceptions could be the result of divided government (where the presidency and at least one of the two houses of Congress are controlled by different parties), but ultimately, Levinson concludes, the Constitution itself plays a detrimental role in our political system.  Here are some of the deficiencies he identifies in our current constitutional structure:

1) Passing legislation is too difficult, especially on the increasingly challenging and important national issues of our day. In a bicameral system, each house of Congress has the ability to block all legislation passed by the other body. The difficulty is increased when the houses are controlled by opposing parties because the opposition party has an incentive to block any legislation of a first term president to stymie his chances to be reelected, the public interest be damned.  (And as we’ve seen, it’s easy enough for Congressmen/women to “just say no,” and there’s not much we can do about it.)

2) The presidential veto isn’t just a check on congressional power, but actually creates a tricameral system (three lawmaking chambers). This might not be a system defect, Levinson allows, if the president truly represented the majority, but as we have witnessed, the electoral college sometimes results in a winner who isn’t supported by a majority of the voters, e.g., Al Gore’s loss to George W. Bush in 2000, and in 1968 and 1992 when Nixon and Clinton won with approximately 43 percent of the vote. Furthermore, the electoral college also guarantees that big predictable states (e.g. Texas and California) get very little of the candidates’ attention during the election process as the candidates fight it out in the appropriately named “battleground states.”  (I would say that encourages unequal or uneven political participation.)

3) Life tenure for federal judges, especially those on the Supreme Court, assures that we are governed by de facto “dead hands of the past,” which is especially problematic in regard to matters that the founding fathers could have never imagined, e.g., NSA surveillance, electronic voting, cell phones, drones. And as Levinson states, “Some . . . might even suggest the power and willingness of the Supreme Court to intervene in national political issues makes us a quadricameral system.”  Noting the 34-year term of Justice Stevens who retired at age 90, Professor Levinson suggests that single, non-renewable 18 year-terms might be preferable.  (And does anyone see a problem with 6 Catholics on the court?)

4) Amending the constitution as described in Article V must follow a stringent process and causes our Constitution to be the most difficult in the world to amend.  Professor Levinson finds it significant that the states have opted to make their constitutions significantly easier to amend.  (Flexibility can be a good thing when you have a 200+ year-old document.)

And before you dismiss the notion of tweaking the Constitution with a don’t-mess-with-success rationale, consider this question posed by Professor Levinson: Is it really possible that there are no lessons from our own experience that might enable us to improve our political system?”

I’ll go ahead and answer that: “No it’s not possible. There are many lessons!”

And besides, who wouldn’t love the opportunity for a redo on the Second Amendment? We don’t have militias anymore (at least legal ones), so why should they be well-armed? We now have a standing army, which is very well-armed – even better armed than the military thinks necessary .  And most importantly, how many more mass shootings of innocent people can this country stand while we continue to swallow the contention that the Second Amendment prevents any solution?

Equally important, we need the language from the Equal Rights Amendment: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” This amendment, which failed to pass enough state legislatures by the 1982 deadline should be incorporated into any new document or its bill of rights. This would cover all LGBT individuals as well.


And just imagine a future in which abortion and contraception were no longer issues of national strife! I would propose an overarching section that recognizes that all people have unfettered rights over their own bodies. Ideally, it would be clear from the ERA language, but I suggest a belts-and-suspenders non-gender approach with language establishing that no law can be enacted to interfere with the doctor/patient relationship and any treatment decision derived therefrom.

Next, there would be constitutional provision prohibiting any law that would imbue corporations with personhood, recognizing them for the fictional entities they are, i.e., vehicles for financing business enterprises and shielding principals and officers from personal (partnership) liability. The new provision would expressly provide that corporations would not have the power to exercise religious beliefs, to engage in political activity, to marry, or possess any rights to free speech of any kind.

And what about religious liberty, i.e., freedom of religion?  Can we establish, once and for all, that we are a secular state and freedom FROM religion is just as important as a freedom to worship as you see fit.  In other words, can we all agree that a single religion (Christianity) does not respect the rights of others in this melting pot of citizens with their various and strongly-held religious beliefs?


Finally, I believe our political system would be improved if the president were elected for a single term, say six, seven, or even eight years (since most presidents win reelection anyway). This would free the president to govern and prevent the stalemate that often occurs after year two of a president’s first term in office. There could still be some form of impeachment if he/she doesn’t work out.

But after compiling my wish list of changes, my constitutional reverie met up with the harsh reality of a question: who would write this “reframed” constitution. We know Congress could not do it . . . as captives to party politics, they can’t do much of anything, plus they’d have to take a long break from their so-called lawmaking to complete the task.

Maybe we could somehow appoint a body of individuals that included government and law professors, former officeholders (U.S. presidents congressmen/women, judges, legislative staffers, White House counsels), historians, etc?  They could hold televised public hearings to take testimony from knowledgeable individuals to assist in the task of writing a Constitution for our time. If nothing else, these hearings would be highly entertaining and a civics lesson like none other in modern American history. Remember the Watergate hearings? It might draw even bigger ratings than the Olympics!


The other option for selecting drafters (or reframers), however, is quite scary: holding elections. I can just imagine who would be elected from Texas: Louie Gohmert- types, right wingers, and tea-partiers who want to do away with government (except for Medicare) or make it small enough to drown in a bathtub a la Grover Norquist. Along with those who would destroy public education and the anti-science crowd (those who insist on he teaching of creationism in science classes), Texas would elect an ample number of abortion foes who would attempt to make abortion a federal capital crime.  They’d want flat taxes and eliminate the IRS.  They would bring their uncompromising, just-say-no attitudes to the task and nothing would get done. (Could we make the Federalist Papers required reading?)

Alas, the more I consider it, dear readers, I realize that this idea of calling a convention is too enlightened to work in the country we now know. In fact, reading about the various battles and skirmishes among the drafters in Philadelphia in 1787, it’s a minor miracle we got the constitution we did. Those men ultimately found their way to compromise and cooperation, albeit with difficulty.

It’s sad to think that over 200 years later, we are stuck, muddling along, fighting political and legal battles that will never advance the cause of a free and prosperous America or fulfill the promise envisioned by the our founding fathers. But, at least we aren’t singing “God Bless the Queen” and governed by the English Parliament. Or a Fuhrer. On the other hand, give the Supreme Court, with its altar-boys-for life majority,  a few more cases like Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and we may find ourselves governed by Pope Francis.  A constitutional papacy, anyone?

Enough said.  Enjoy your fourth of July, anyway!



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The Heartbreak of Tax Breaks

As many Austinites already know, our fair city – once known as a laid back haven for slackers, musicians, students, and escapees of the Dallas and Houston lifestyle – is becoming increasingly unlivable and unaffordable.  Unfortunately, the beauty and quality of life in Austin has attracted thousands of new residents who have driven up property values and pushed apartment occupancy to 95 or 96 percent, thereby raising rents. Supply and demand at work – high five to Adam Smith!

home prices

But, as the housing market has hit the boiling point, our property tax appraisals (based on market value) have risen accordingly. So, even if you want to stay in the same house you’ve cared for and loved for 30 years, many now question whether they can continue paying their property tax bills, particularly those on a fixed income. It’s not uncommon anymore to hear of lifelong Austin residents who significantly reduced their property taxes by moving no further than a town or two down the highway from Austin.

To make matters worse, we Austinites have done such a good job of conserving water lately, the City-owned electric and water utility is raising rates again to pay its bills for certain infrastructure that must be paid, water use or no water use. Plus, we may be hit with a “drought fee” to finance the search for more water because Lakes Travis and Buchanan that we have historically relied upon are drying up – currently they are only 36% full!

lake travis

And consider that the average homeowner’s tax bill includes about $200 a year so that the University of Texas can build a medical school. That homeowner also pays about $150 a year toward the Austin Community College District, and we’ll soon have the opportunity to vote on adding some extra dollars to all these assessments to finance a light rail system, which won’t provide transportation options where I live or anywhere near here.

With that backdrop, imagine how much I enjoyed Pete Winstead’s special contributor opinion piece in the Austin-American about giving tax breaks to big companies who want to relocate in Austin. In fact the headline, “Resting on our ‘cool’ laurels won’t keep Austin booming,” made me gag. He wrote that he wants to “build an even stronger and cooler Austin.” Still gagging over that.


Chairman of Opportunity Austin, Pete Winstead, you see, is a lawyer who honed his legal chops and civic involvement in Dallas. He did so well there, he moved here in 1987 to start an Austin branch of his law firm and work his “magic” on us. In the opinion of at least one former Dallasite I spoke with, Pete wants to Dallasify our city.

In his article, Pete makes compelling arguments for continuing the practice of giving tax breaks to companies that relocate to Austin. I say “compelling” if you believe in his trickle-down theory — that the opportunities these companies provide will enrich the rest of us in a variety of ways. He also argues that unless we offer these companies tax breaks, the City will be powerless to negotiate with them.

Negotiate? What Pete really means is the Winstead firm will be powerless to negotiate FOR the companies and AGAINST the City and Austin’s taxpayers. On his firm biography, for example, he states that the Winstead firm “guided Dell Computer Corporation through its initial public offering and its dealing with municipalities on the concessions related to the company’s relocation to Round Rock, Texas.”  And I love this sentence:  “His major involvement in civic, political and philanthropic matters in the Austin area has made him a ‘go to’ person to secure the award of various projects from political entities in the region or just to position a client to understand and succeed in the Central Texas area.”

Meanwhile, long-time Austin residents and business owners, must shoulder the price of government, watching our tax bills get bigger so we can pay for his wheeling and dealing to “position” his clients to get the biggest tax break possible.  Who wouldn’t have a few thoughts about where he could “go to.”

All of this is why I was glad to read Bill Aleshire’s piece in the Austin-American the next week, countering Pete’s thoughts on the subject. Bill moved to Austin in 1970, about the same time as Willie Nelson. Unlike Pete, Bill actually remembers when the town was “cool” (to use Pete’s word), i.e., when there was an Armadillo, Split Rail, Liberty Lunch, and a Threadgill’s Tavern featuring Janice Joplin. Bill has the perspective and, as former Tax Assessor/Collector and County Judge, the credibility to speak about what makes Austin livable – and it’s not incentives to entice big companies to move here and do business tax free!aleshire

In his own words, Bill says, “Recruiting tax dodgers to locate here has not made, and will not make, Austin more affordable for the rest of us. Stoking the red-hot fire of growth with tax giveaways is not the path to sustainable growth.” Moreover, he continues, the growth that Pete wants to see “is not the solution to traffic congestion, high rent and home prices or strains on education; wild growth is largely the cause of the current crisis in those areas.”

He effectively disputes the trickle-down delusion Pete lives under, i.e., that we all will be better off by allowing some privileged few to avoid a tax bill. Bill writes, “. . . no law of economics says that a lower cost of living will result when the wild growth inflates housing costs and drives up taxes and fees [in reaction to] the sudden strain on infrastructure, all while exempting new companies from paying taxes.”

And Pete’s ears had to burn when Bill explained about the few who benefit from this kind of growth: “. . . we now have a type of tax-incentive/political complex in Austin, where enormous political influence is wielded by those who benefit from the transactions that come along with recruiting big companies to Austin . . . [those who] make money off the relocation transaction, regardless of the net effect on the community at large.”

Does this make anyone else wonder how much did the Winstead firm earn from negotiating the Dell deal in Round Rock?

As a lifelong Austin resident, I understand that there is a price to pay for living here, but it’s a price that everyone within the City limits should have to shoulder proportionately. Companies need to pay their fair share as an act of corporate citizenship. Surely, if corporations can have free speech rights, they can have civic virtues.

City council

My hope is that, when elected, our new city council with members from single-member districts will be outsiders to the tax-incentive/political complex and be advocates for their constituents on the issue of affordability rather than growth at all costs. Maybe a majority of council members will take the approach that Austin’s leadership has been like a teenager with a new car and has negligently failed to do the appropriate maintenance, thereby  allowing the vehicle to deteriorate.   For the sake of current residents and taxpayers, I hope they will take back the keys until that teenager has matured and started showing evidence of responsible municipal stewardship.

To all of you who haven’t moved here yet, let me suggest that you don’t. Austin doesn’t deserve you. Until we can find a place for your car on the road, can assure you of tax fairness, and promise that you can find affordable rents and housing, we aren’t entitled to all of the special things you might bring to our world. It will be our loss, and your gain in the long run. Unless we get our act together, Austin will only break your heart along with your bank account.



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