WTF Friday will be on hiatus next week for the Thanksgiving holiday, so let us take today to give thanks. We are thankful for the entertainment provided by our friends in politics. Thank you, Rick Perry, for insisting on wearing those MSNBC glasses to make yourself look smarter, a fashion accessory that makes as much sense on you as Ben Roethlisberger donning an ascot. Thank you, Ted Cruz, for being a world-historical elitist at Harvard and pissing off what seems to be the entire class of ’95 who are now gladly providing fodder for endless unflattering Ted’s College Days reminiscences.
Thank you to the State Board of Education, for re-litigating the Scopes Monkey Trial for the 3,062nd time.
Thank you, David Dewhurst, for so shamelessly trying to be someone you’re not, for trying everything to impress the tea party short of donning a tri-corner hat and stapling tea bags to area telephone poles. And thank you for reaching new levels of hyperbole in your latest TV ad, proving your hatred for Barack Obama, alien species that he is, incapable of sharing any human feeling with Republicans.
“With all due respect to President Obama, I can’t think of one thing that I agree with him on.”
Thank you Young Conservatives of Texas at UT-Austin for your decade-long obsession with offensive stunts: affirmative action bake sales, straight-pride parades and the (swiftly canceled) illegal immigrant hunt, which I’m sure sounded like a great idea over beers at Mellow Mushroom. As the group explained on its Facebook page.
“Any UT student who catches one of these ‘illegal immigrants’ and brings them back to our table will receive a $25 gift card. The purpose of this event is to spark a campus-wide discussion about the issue of illegal immigration, and how it affects our everyday lives.”
Thank you, finally, for the second coming of Wayne Christian. He’s a former state representative who’s still referring to himself as “the only Christian on the ballot.” His highlight reel includes trying to exempt himself from the Open Beaches Act and defending legislation banning LGBT centers at universities by explaining that he’d been “racially discriminated against” as a white guy on the high school basketball team. Now, he’s running for Texas Railroad Commission to protect our precious lignites from the oppressor in the White House, as he told the Waco Tea Party [54:10]. Obama, of course, has been so tough on the oil industry that the U.S. is on track to surpass Saudi Arabia in production and the night sky in the South Texas brush country is lit up by flares burning off natural gas.
(By the way, the number of nonsensical statements by Christian in that interview is staggering, including his assertion that he stopped 1,000 abortions a year funded by the taxpayers. Needless to say, I hope, Texas taxpayers do not pay for abortions.)
“[Turn] Texas blue is partially being fought by taking over our oil and gas industry by a president who’s openly said he’s against fracking, who’s against pipelines.”
Today, November 22, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. The white Xs in Dealey Plaza that demarcated the tragedy have recently been paved over, but the event left “a permanent black scar on [Dallas] history that can never be erased,” writes editor David Hale Smith in his introduction to Dallas Noir. “On that day in 1963, Dallas became American noir.”
It’s no coincidence that Dallas Noir, an anthology of short fiction, was published earlier this month. It’s a dark tribute by contemporary authors—including Ben Fountain, Kathleen Kent, and Clay Reynolds—who have deep connections to a city that Hale compares to “a beautiful woman with poison under her fingernails.” The book is divided into three sections titled “Cowboys,” “Rangers” and “Mavericks,” and each story is set in a different Dallas neighborhood. In a review for The Dallas Morning News, Joyce Sàenz Harris addresses those who might think Dallas is too dull for such a literary treatment: “Perhaps you haven’t gotten out much and seen the dark edges of Big D for yourself.” This collection explores those dark edges with stories featuring femme fatales, gangbangers, lonely waitresses and a Civil War reenactment gone wrong.
David Hale Smith will join a panel of contributing authors on Dec. 6 at Austin’s BookPeople to discuss the anthology.
Austin theater darlings Rude Mechanicals are at it again with Fixing King John, a modern retelling of King John, one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays. Resident Rude Mech playwright Kirk Lynn discusses his touchstones, from Robert Johnson via the White Stripes to the Bard’s love of smut.
What inspired you to start “fixing” some of Shakespeare’s plays?
I was running and I was listening to a White Stripes live album, and they were covering ‘Stop Breaking Down,’ by Robert Johnson, and I started thinking, ‘Would Robert Johnson even recognize this as his music?’ Especially on the live version, not on the album version, the solo is just so aggressive and noisy. I was like, ‘I want to do that.’
The poet Charles Simic said this thing I really feel connected to. He said that writers want to honor the masters of their craft, but they also want to overthrow them and make room for themselves and sort of destroy them.
I thought, ‘I just want to cover something and make it sound like the White Stripes make ‘Stop Breaking Down’ sound: respectful, and clearly in the tradition of blues—and loving the blues—but just annihilating it, too.’
So how did you go about fixing King John?
I went online, downloaded the full text as a text file, and every morning before I would start whatever my bigger project was, I would just do a page or so, turning it into contemporary English and adding curse words. I feel like a reason Shakespeare can sort of smuggle himself into high schools and colleges is because we don’t recognize how foul he is. Shakespeare loves smut.
So, that was the first pass. Then, I abandoned any loyalty to the Shakespearean text and just tried to edit it like I would one of my plays: Cut it down to 10 characters so you could do it. King John goes from 22 down to 10 characters. Then, just smooth out the plot. And then there were some other things. I really wanted to push toward more gender parity, so I gave the female characters more lines.
Is a retelling more difficult to write than an original play?
I don’t think so. In some ways it was easier. Like anything, once you get under the hood, you find these beautiful sections where you’re like ‘Oh my God, this is a goldmine here.’
Is there any contemporary political commentary at work in the play?
Yeah. There’s a lot of talk about these guys just going to war at the drop of a hat; they don’t seem to care about it. There’s a French king, Philip, in our play, who keeps saying, ‘Man, I just don’t fight anymore.’ He lets his son do all the fighting. And he has this fairly beautiful speech on why he doesn’t fight anymore. It has to do with the slaughter of innocent kids. In Shakespeare, they talk about, ‘Man, we lost this duke,’ and they list out the nobles, and in our play they mention the fact that they lost countless people that nobody knows their names. So there’s a lot of talk about the cost of war.
I originally was drafting a few years ago as we were feeling like we were going to get to move out of Iraq and Afghanistan. The ways, especially in Iraq, in which we took civilian life, still ongoing with the drone work… how do we want to count these people? For the most part, it seems like we don’t even want to count them or think about them. There’s no character named Obama or George Bush, but there is meditation on ‘What do wars actually cost?’
Is your method of “fixing” Shakespeare any different from updating Shakespeare for a modern audience, which is a fairly common undertaking?
I think it’s different in that, at a certain point, I just abandon any loyalty to the text. I got to work on it at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with some real Shakespearean actors, which was a real kick, and I think the percentage came out about right. There were probably, out of 15, three or four people who thought it was offensive and not a great idea, and I think that’s kind of the sweet spot that I want to hit: 10-12 people think this is beautiful and three people think it’s kind of… If it’s not offensive to anybody, I would have failed. It takes Shakespeare as the starting place, but abandons it eventually. The farther you get into the play, the less it has to do with Shakespeare.
What’s the future hold for Rude Mechs’ “Fixing Shakespeare” series?
Every two years, the Rude Mechs are going to fix a new one, so we’re asking people what they think is the worst Shakespeare so we can fix that one next. We’re messing around with Timon of Athens, which is a fun play.
Another little feature is that once we produce these plays, they’re going to be given away for free. My greatest desire is that high school kids will find them and love them. It’s fun to do them professionally, but it seems like the people who might really appreciate them are the student that I was when I was 17 or 18. I loved Shakespeare, even at that age, but being forced to talk about it as though it’s purely high culture can take all the fun out of it. I guess even undergrads in college could produce it on their own. There are no rights or royalties attached, so they can do whatever they want with it.
In April 2012, PBS aired footage of as many as 20 border agents beating an unarmed man, Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, to death. After viewing the shocking footage, congressional leaders demanded a review of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, which some border residents say should be held to the same standards as law enforcement.
This week, the Southern Border Communities Coalition, which is a consortium of nonprofits and immigrant rights advocates, is in Washington D.C. to meet with congressional members and White House staff about the U.S. Border Patrol’s lethal force practices, and to let them know that local communities need more input on border enforcement.
“We want Congress to begin investing in the border region by supporting jobs, roads and schools not more guns, drones and walls,” said Andrea Guerrero, co-chair of the Southern Border Communities Coalition.
To get Congress’ attention, the coalition has formed a campaign called “Revitalize Not Militarize.” The group brought hundreds of quilt panels created by border residents to the National Mall in Washington, to highlight the damage that border militarization has done to local communities. The idea was inspired by AIDS quilts created in the ‘80s.
“It was a very effective way of getting the message across,” said Ricardo Favela, spokesperson for the coalition. “We want people to pay attention to the border region.”
Favela said that U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s lethal force policies are one of the biggest problems along the border right now. “At least 20 people have been killed by Border Patrol agents since 2010,” he said. “The Border Patrol is out of control. They lack accountability and oversight.”
Family members of some of the victims—Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, Valeria Munique Tachiquin (a U.S. citizen fatally shot by a border agent), and Jose Gutierrez (beaten into a coma by customs agents)—spoke Wednesday during a press conference at the National Mall about the need for better training and oversight of the Border Patrol.
“We’re just asking that Border Patrol abide by the same best police practices that police departments follow across the nation,” Guerrero said.
Many people killed by border agents were accused of throwing rocks. At least six of the 20 victims were also fatally shot in Mexican territory. In September, the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General released a report on the spate of fatal shootings and beatings by Border Patrol agents and found that “many agents and officers do not understand use of force and the extent to which they may or may not use force.”
A government-commissioned analysis by the Police Executive Research Forum recommended that the agency stop using lethal force against rock throwers. But in early November, Border Patrol Chief Mike Fisher told the Associated Press that his agency would not implement the recommendation. “Just to say that you shouldn’t shoot at rock-throwers or vehicles for us, in our environment, was very problematic and could potentially put Border Patrol agents in danger,” Fisher said.
But Guerrero said something needs to change, because poorly crafted border enforcement policy and growing militarization is harming border communities. “Valeria Tachiquin was gunned down just blocks from my house by a Border Patrol agent who was fired by the sheriff’s office for misconduct,” she said. “We don’t need any more guns, drones or walls.”
We may think we exercise some modicum of control over our lives. But when the maelstrom hits, as Hurricane Katrina does in Tom Zigal’s epic Many Rivers to Cross, we realize the order governing our lives is temporary and paper-thin.
The minute Vietnam vet Hodge Grant and Duval, the ne’er-do-well father of Grant’s grandchildren, jump into a homemade boat to attempt to rescue Grant’s daughter and grandchildren as the waters rise in New Orleans, we realize there are no maps to guide them, or us. The fragile center of their lives, and of life in New Orleans, cannot hold as the chaos of Katrina sweeps the known world from its moorings.
Grant’s daughter and her children wait on their roof to be rescued. Grant and Duval evade law enforcement and marauders as they try to find her house in a world without landmarks. A young woman caught in her floating VW screams for help. Grant ties floating bodies to lampposts so they will be found. Drunks party through the night in a Bourbon Street bar above the flood. An old man poles a raft heavy with bodies as if he’s crossing the river Styx. Gangs loot stores and homes and assault victims in boats, huddled in shelters and on rooftops. Is this the beginning of the end of the world?
The only order remaining is that carved by human connections: acts of generosity and kindness or violence and nihilism. Grant’s son takes part in a jailbreak from the Orleans Parish Prison as rising water threatens to drown men in their cells. He breaks into an apartment to escape prison guards patrolling in boats, only to find three hungry young children whose junkie mother has died in the bathroom. Suddenly, he is no longer on his own.
Opportunities for redemption and salvation offer themselves up at every turn. Sometimes they are accepted; sometimes they are shunned. And the waters keep rising.
Tom Zigal has written an important book. But unlike some important books, it’s also a page-turner. Its characters, and readers, cannot find terra firma.
Now based in Austin, Zigal lived in New Orleans for a few years, and the city grew on him. This is the second book of a New Orleans trilogy in progress. The first novel, The White League, was nested inside a white, racist, elite society that clandestinely controlled New Orleans.
Many Rivers to Cross is largely a book about African-Americans living in New Orleans because, as Zigal told his audience at a reading, “Katrina was a uniquely African-American tragedy.” As such, the African-American characters are the norm, and the only characters indentified by race are those who are not African-American—the inverse of the standard American narrative. Zigal is scrupulous about the dialogue, making sure the language is right. It’s a high-wire act by a white writer, and he makes it all the way across.
Zigal launches this novel into a world spinning out of control. Even with some respite at the end, we leave it understanding that the order of our world is fragile and temporary, and the waters will rise again.
In June, Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Speaker of the House Joe Straus announced that Chevron—one of the world’s largest and most profitable corporations—would be handed a $12 million grant from the state of Texas for building an office tower in downtown Houston. As we wrote at the time, the Chevron subsidy was a perfect example of the problems with the Texas Enterprise Fund and forced the question of whether the company would’ve created the estimated 1,752 jobs anyway. After all, Chevron had telegraphed plans for the office tower site as early as 2008. It had already planned to relocate some employees from San Ramon, California, where the company is headquartered.
At the time, Texas Monthly‘s Paul Burka called for the Texas Enterprise Fund to be scrapped and labeled the Chevron grant “a total waste of public money.”
Regardless of whether the Chevron subsidy is a deal-closing, job-creating incentive or a corporate giveaway, you have to wonder what Chevron—with $240 billion in revenue last year—would do with the $12 million. What were the taxpayers paying for?
Well, now we know. Through state open records law, the Observer obtained a copy of Chevron’s application to the Texas Enterprise Fund. A “project summary” prepared by SumIt Credits, a Louisiana firm working on Chevron’ behalf, asserts that “these incentives are very valuable to Chevron and would help cover project costs as well as employee relocation costs.” Chevron/SumIt specifically lists “costs associated with the relocation of employees,” including all home-selling costs, a week off for house hunting, an expense allowance for as much as $15,0000, travel costs and a bonus.
The application also contains scant justification for the big “but-for” question: Would Chevron have created the jobs in Houston without incentives? “A few business segments already decided to relocate to Houston,” the project summary states. “Chevron continues to evaluate the most competitive organizational structure, including the evaluation of the status quo against the possibility of job relocations.”
So, there you have it. Texas taxpayers are helping to pay for Chevron’s employees moving costs. Welcome to Texas!
Here is the full text from the relevant section of the project summary.
Competitive Siting: The U.S. will become the world’s top producer of oil within five years according to a recent report from the International Energy Agency. Chevron will be a big part of this and anticipates significant new jobs over the next 8 years. Chevron is analyzing its options to address its needs and remain competitive in the marketplace. In doing so, Chevron is contemplating the construction of a new facility in Houston, and many factors come into play in maturing this investment decision. Completion of this project would allow Chevron to proactively manage and house the 2,000 – 2,500 estimated new jobs to be created, or relocated, to its Houston urban campus. A final investment decision for construction of this proposed new building is anticipated to occur in the 2nd Quarter of 2014.
A few business segments in San Ramon have already decided to relocate to Houston. Chevron continues to evaluate the most competitive organizational structure, including the evaluation of the status quo against the possibility of job relocations. Many factors come into play in this evaluation including, available & quality of space, economics, costs ramifications and job relocation costs. The costs associated with the relocation of employees include the following, which can be significant:
l. Payment of all normal & customary home selling costs (e.g. 6% Real Estate Commission, Loan costs, etc…)
2. Misc expense allowance equal to 1.5 times one month’s salary (capped at $15,000)
3. Week off for house hunting
4. Interim Living up to 30 days
5. Cost of two trips to and from location
6. Company will provide a guaranteed offer
7 . Bonus of up lo 2% if home sells before guaranteed offer
Any incentives provided for jobs would help mitigate these costs and assist with other costs factored in as each business unit reviews its employee location needs.
Austin may have a reputation for being Texas’ most gay-friendly town, but Houston’s catching up.
Houston Mayor Annise Parker announced today that the city will start offering employment benefits like health insurance to same-sex spouses of city employees who were legally married in other states. In 2001, voters approved a city charter amendment that appears to prohibit exactly that, but Parker says because it permits benefits for “legal spouses,” then legal gay spouses should be included. (Parker, who is gay, will be unaffected by the change since she and her partner of 24 years are unmarried.)
A statement from the mayor’s office appears to claim both that the city is still legally obeying the charter amendment—the city will not extend benefits to domestic partners, for example, only to full spouses—and that the charter amendment is unlawfully discriminatory. It explained, “After a careful review of recent case law, the city legal department believes continued application of the charter amendment so as to deny same-sex spousal benefits would be unlawful because it treats employees differently on the basis of sexual orientation.”
The statement cited the August IRS decision recognizing married same-sex couples for federal tax purposes even if the couples reside in states where their marriage is not recognized. Austin, Dallas, El Paso and Fort Worth already have such policies, as does San Antonio, the recent site of an ugly squabble over whether to extend the city’s non-discrimination policy to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
It’s the second big leap forward for gay rights in Houston in as many weeks. Last Thursday, the Harris County Sheriff’s announced new policies intended to prevent sexual assault and harassment at the county jail. They include adding sexual orientation and gender orientation to the characteristics protected against discrimination and requiring new training on “updated zero-tolerance rules” about sexual abuse, harassment, improper contact and failure to report violations, according to a statement.
More radically, jail staff are now expected to consider gender identity, not merely anatomy, when deciding whether to house inmates with men or women. They’re also director to address inmates by either their chosen name or last name only, and to “follow common sense rules about whether an inmate should be searched by a male or female staffer.”
“Harris County courts will continue to mete out tough justice,” said Sheriff Adrian Garcia in the statement. “But being tough only works the right way when it is accompanied by values such as safety, fairness and dignity.”
Dignity in Houston looks to be coming along.
As a kid, journalist/writer Michael Erard was interested in language, but says he could only find dense technical books on the topic. His new project, Schwa Fire, is conceived as the digital magazine about language—”meaty but accessible,” he says—he wishes he’d had access to then.
Schwa Fire targets language geeks, the grammar-obsessed, linguists, poets, spelling enthusiasts, journalists, and anyone who’s curious about the power of language. That’s a growing audience, Erard says, and Schwa Fire‘s digital-only format will aim to provide quality long-form journalism and audio stories for anyone who writes, reads, listens or speaks.
“Language journalism,” Erard says, “is at the point where sports journalism was before Sports Illustrated came along.”
If anyone’s qualified to get a project like this off the ground, it’s Michael Erard. He’s been writing about language for more than a decade, and his work has been featured in The New York Times, Slate, Science, Wired, and The Texas Observer. He’s the author of two nonfiction books—Um. . . Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean; and Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners—about language.
Schwa Fire is estimated to launch in early 2014. You can check out a sample Schwa Fire story, a trailer for the project, and more information on Schwa Fire‘s Kickstarter campaign page.
The mood was grim among folks from Bay City, Eagle Lake and other coastal communities today as the Lower Colorado River Authority board voted 8-7 in favor of an emergency proposal that will likely cut off water to rice farmers for the third year in a row.
Unless the Highland Lakes contain 1.1 million acre-feet by March 1—roughly half full—most rice farmers will receive no water in 2014. That’s an unlikely scenario. Currently the lakes contain about 728,000 acre-feet and are 36 percent full. We’d need a very wet winter to make up the difference.
As a consolation, LCRA also proposed new mandatory restrictions on lawn watering, limiting outdoor watering to no more than one day per week for its customers. The LCRA’s emergency drought plan now goes to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for approval.
Although the contentious day-long discussion was often dominated by the usual mind-numbing talk of acre-feet, senior rights, certifications of adjudication and interruptible flows, the familiar dynamic of upper basin vs. lower basin, lawns vs. agriculture, Austin vs. the rice farmers, urban vs. rural, was unmistakable.
“This will be our tsunami,” said Mary Parr, the mayor of Eagle Lake. Parr said her town of 3,800, where rice farming dates to the 1890s, is already reeling from two years of receiving no water from the Highland Lakes to irrigate crops. Rice-related enterprises in her area are reporting a 20 to 60 percent reduction in business, according to an informal survey she conducted. One of the two banks in town has closed and the other has laid off staff. The John Deere dealership has packed it in.
Parr told me she delivers a far more optimistic message at home (“we will make it through this”) but felt obligated to let Austin decision-makers know how dire things were becoming.
“God gives us dominion over fish and birds but it appears LCRA has dominion over our rural economy in the lower basin,” said Mitch Thames, president of the Bay City Chamber of Commerce. Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, a Brenham Republican who later stormed out of the board room after a vote to postpone the decision was defeated, said LCRA’s emergency meeting today came as a surprise to her and that people in her community hadn’t been consulted—a theme repeated over and over again.
But Austinites, the LCRA staff and many board members said the gravity of the drought and the uncertainty over how long it will last necessitate emergency action. The amount of water flowing into lakes Travis and Buchanan—known as “inflows” in water parlance—was the lowest ever in 2011, the fifth-lowest in 2012 and in 2013 is on track to be the second-lowest. “That’s never happened before,” said Greg Meszaros, director of the Austin Water Utility. “It’s never even come close to happening before.”
Until the Halloween “rain bomb,” the lakes were perilously close to hitting an all-time low of 600,000 acre-feet. That would’ve triggered a declaration of “a drought worse than the drought of record” and a round of mandatory cutbacks. Crossing that talismanic threshold has an obvious psychological resonance and regional authorities and politicians seem eager to avoid it, or at least put it off.
The odds of dropping below 600,000 acre-feet of storage would be 1 in 4, staff said, if the LCRA stuck with its current plan.
Even the status quo is unfavorable to downstream farmers. In 2012 and 2013, LCRA established “emergency triggers” of 850,000 acre-feet. The lakes were below that level both years and most rice farmers received nothing. Some are talking about the lakes never recovering.
“This will become permanent and be a death blow to the rice industry,” said Steve Balas, a board member from Eagle Lake. “We’re not going to get to [850,000 acre-feet] anyway.”
Austin and Highland Lake interests pointed to the other half of the proposal passed today: mandatory restrictions on lawn-watering to once per week for all of LCRA’s customers. Environmentalists praised the stepped-up conservation mandate but argued that suspending “interruptible” customers (read: rice farmers) could be devastating for the ecology of Matagorda Bay. Because much of the water used to flood rice fields eventually ends up in the bay—providing an influx of freshwater essential to the health of bays and estuaries—environmentalists, wildlife groups, fishermen and duck hunters have urged conservation before choking off releases from the Highland Lakes. Just two months ago, the LCRA board considered suspending all environmental flows for 2013, a proposal that was scuttled only after torrential rainfall below the Highland Lakes in October.
Still, Matagorda Bay is presently in a long-term survival mode, with just enough water trickling in to provide a small safe zone for fish and other marine life at the mouth of the Colorado River. For 2014, LCRA is only obligated to provide about 6,000 acre-feet of water, a paltry amount, said Jennifer Walker of the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club. For context, 6,000 acre-feet is a little less than 4 percent of the freshwater inflows scientists believe is the bare minimum required for maintaining a refuge area in Matagorda Bay.
If rainfall is scarce downstream of Austin and the rice farmers are cut off, she said, “We have a chance of it being much worse than this year.”