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Courtesy of Amplify
Rinko Kikuchi in Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.
Rinko Kikuchi — Kumiko the Treasure Hunter
Courtesy of Amplify
Rinko Kikuchi in Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.

In November 2001, a Japanese office worker named Takako Konishi flew from Tokyo to Minneapolis, traveled west to North Dakota and then back into Minnesota, and then committed suicide in a field outside the small Minnesota town of Detroit Lakes. As a result of a strange series of miscommunications, misunderstandings and early-Internet urban-legend-making, rumors started swirling that Konishi had traveled to the region in search of the buried ransom money from the 1996 Joel and Ethan Coen crime drama Fargo. That movie begins, after all, with the words “This is a true story.” Who wouldn’t want to believe that a troubled woman might have read them and decided to search for the treasure, and then killed herself when she failed to find it?

Austin filmmakers — Zellner Brothers
Courtesy of Amplify
Austin filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner.

It turns out the legend of Takako Konishi was no more true than the stories of Jerry Lundegaard and Marge Gunderson. Konishi was just depressed about losing her job, and had returned to the site of a romantic trip she had taken with a former lover, where she found her memories too much to bear. The Coen brothers, for their part, had simply made a fictional movie. Still, the sad, strange, conflated tale stuck with Austin filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner, and over the next decade served as the steady inspiration for Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, the Zellners’ new meditation on loneliness and blind hope.

It’s a movie that even further blurs the line between Konishi’s reality and Fargo’s fiction, a “based on a true story” yarn about a woman who mistakes the story unfolding in a movie for truth, and a meta-experimentation that somehow manages to also be one of the more heartfelt films I’ve seen in years.

Sitting down to watch Kumiko, which becomes available on Blu-ray June 30, I had no doubt the Zellner brothers could handle the quirkiness and self-reflexivity of the premise. For almost 20 years, over the span of 15 short and feature-length films, the Austinites have been telling bizarre stories, each more conceptually daring and flamboyant than the last, from the cautionary tale of Flotsam/Jetsam and the Adult Swimready stoner madness of the Fiddlestixx trilogy (starring a monkey) to the feature Goliath, which is about a man searching obsessively for his cat. I was uncertain, however, about their ability to capture the sadness at the heart of a story about a lonely woman searching for meaning and hope, especially when that story has a suicide at its center. The Zellners are great idea guys, but in their movies emotion has always taken a back seat to avant-garde lightheartedness and whimsy.

Kumiko, I’m happy to say, is a work of full maturity and artistry, the kind of movie they’ve always hinted they were capable of making. Their protagonist (played with near-silent brilliance by Rinko Kikuchi) is a loner and underachiever plagued by ever-present melancholy. Already past the age when most office working women in Japan have gotten married and started families, Kumiko toils wordlessly and without emotion at her dead-end job, surrounded by younger women she doesn’t understand and repeatedly chastised by a boss who doesn’t understand her. When she discovers an old VHS copy of Fargo in a seaside cave, Kumiko finally sees a way into, and out of, her life. So with nothing but a treasure map she’s drawn on cloth and her boss’s credit card, she heads off to America—like a Spanish conquistador “hunting for riches in the Americas,” she says—on a quest of solitude, silence and, probably, insanity.

In Kumiko, the Zellners have found their muse. Gone are the flashy freak-outs of their earlier films, replaced by an unhurried character study that gets only more compelling and emotional the further Kumiko drifts from the real world into the world of her mind. The movie’s point isn’t the strangeness and fertility of the filmmakers’ imaginations, but the depth of their protagonist’s humanity. Her madness is far more important than theirs. All those familiar Zellner touches—the extended silences, the deadpan reactions, the fascination with eccentricity—are here employed in service of something meaningful. No longer simply gestures without heart, they now speak to the loneliness and despair, and even hope, of their unmoored heroine. The result is so much more moving than anything the filmmakers have managed before. In making a movie about a woman who wishes her life were more like a movie, David and Nathan Zellner have at long last found a way to make a movie that’s more like life.

Stephen Graham Jones
Stephen Graham Jones
Courtesy of Stephen Graham Jones
This year’s guest judge is Stephen Graham Jones, author of 15 novels and six story collections.

Although all four runners-up in the 2014 Texas Observer short story contest wrote about, or from, Texas, the winning story took us outside of the Lone Star State entirely for the first time in the contest’s history. Not only out of Texas, but out of the United States. China is the setting of Ling Ma’s “Fuzhou Nighttime Feeling,” chosen as the contest’s best entry by guest judge Elizabeth McCracken.

This year’s challenge to writers is two-fold: bring the trophy back home, or take it even further afield.

2015 guest judge Stephen Graham Jones says he’s looking for a story with “a fast start and a real ending, and a voice that makes me want to hear more, keep turning the pages.”

Jones is the author of 15 novels and six story collections in a range of genres from literary fiction to horror. A member of the Blackfeet tribe, he grew up in a place “too small to even have a post office,” and in 2012 published Growing Up Dead in Texas, a novel about that place (Greenwood, Texas) that offers a dazzling mix of fiction, memoir and reportage about a devastating cotton fire. If we could recommend one book by which to get a sense of Jones’ style, Growing Up Dead in Texas is the one.

The prize for winning this year’s contest is a check for $1,000, publication in our annual October Books Issue and subsequent publication online. Past winners include Brian Allen Carr, who has since published six books; Ashley Hope Perez, whose 2013 winner, “3:17,” is an excerpt from her upcoming novel, Out of Darkness; and Ma, who recently won the Graywolf SLS Prize for best novel excerpt from an emerging writer.

As many as four finalists also will be published online, and up to 25 honorable mentions will have their names and story titles published.

So bring us your fast starts and your real endings, writers. Make the pages turn.

Click here for contest rules and to submit your entry.


Activists chant and yell in the Capitol rotunda as the House debates new abortion restrictions.
Patrick Michels
Pro-choice activists in orange chant and dance in the Capitol rotunda in June 2013 in protest of House Bill 2.

For the second time in less than a year, the U.S. Supreme Court has temporarily blocked two major components of Texas’ omnibus abortion law that would have forced all but nine abortion clinics in the state to close.

Now, the 19 remaining abortion clinics in Texas, including Whole Woman’s Health in McAllen, will stay open as plaintiffs in the legal challenge against House Bill 2 ask the high court to hear the case. Plaintiffs have 90 days to file a petition with the Supreme Court, and attorneys say they plan to do so this summer.

Whole Woman’s Health and other independent abortion providers are challenging the law’s requirements that physicians obtain admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and that clinics meet hospital-like ambulatory surgical center standards. The Supreme Court stepped in last fall to block those provisions as plaintiffs appealed the Fifth Circuit’s original decision to uphold the law.

“We’re relieved that the high court has, once again, prevented anti-choice politicians from pushing safe and affordable abortion care entirely out of reach for Texas women,” Amy Hagstrom Miller with Whole Woman’s Health said in a statement. “With today’s ruling, we remain hopeful that the justice system too will stand with Texas woman and Whole Woman’s Health.”

On June 9, a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the law does not create an undue burden for Texas women, despite the fact that it would have closed all but nine abortion facilities statewide, leaving more than 900,000 Texas women living 150 miles or farther from a clinic. The panel also agreed that the Legislature’s intent was “to protect the health and safety of women,” not to erode abortion access, as plaintiffs argued.

In response to the 5th Circuit opinion, plaintiffs asked the Supreme Court on June 19 to step in.

Plaintiffs argue that the appellate court has largely ignored practical and economic barriers that Texans may face when forced to travel for abortions, such as child care, an inability to take time off work, transportation costs and the threat of arrest and deportation in the case of undocumented women. Internal border checkpoints, such as the Falfurrias checkpoint north of McAllen, pose insurmountable barriers to undocumented women living in the Rio Grande Valley who need to travel to San Antonio. Abortion rights advocates fear such women will turn to “unsafe, illegal” methods to induce their own abortions, said Paula Saldaña, a community health worker who has worked in the Rio Grande Valley for 20 years.

Losing the last abortion clinic in the lower Rio Grande Valley would take away “a safe, legal place to be able to obtain [abortion] services if they need them,” she said. “[Women] are going to put their lives at risk. They’re going to find a way.”

In her years as a health care educator, Saldaña has heard stories about women traveling to Mexico for injections to induce miscarriages, and others turning to herbal remedies.

“This [abortion services] should be accessible in my community,” Saldaña said. “We’re going to continue to fight.”

According to legal experts, the high court’s decision today to block the law from taking full effect means it will likely agree to hear the case against House Bill 2 in its next term, which begins this fall.

In a statement after today’s decision, Gov. Greg Abbott maintained that the law is designed to “to fight for higher-quality healthcare standards for women while protecting our most vulnerable—the unborn, and I’m confident the Supreme Court will ultimately uphold this law.”

Attorneys for abortion providers are hopeful that the high court will opt to review the law.

“This case presents a very, very dramatic impact in the type of restrictions on access to abortion clinics that we’ve seen over the last few years,” said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights. “If this case is not taken by the Supreme Court, it’s going to allow continuation of the closure of clinics.”

Austin moontower
“Moonlight Towers,” were built in the late 19th century to cast crime-deterrent swaths of light across a then-gas-lit downtown.

I don’t know when you last found yourself appreciating the particular sights, sounds and smells of the stretch of Waller Creek that runs between Sixth and Eighth streets in downtown Austin, but if you’re like me, the answer is probably close to never.

Until, that is, this spring, when I was compelled by a bunch of hip media-types from San Francisco and New York City not only to venture into the urban drainage of Waller Creek but to peek into nooks and crannies I’d passed by without heed for years.

I was looking for a serial killer. Specifically, the man dubbed by the writer William Sydney Porter (who was better known as O. Henry, and who lived just blocks from Waller Creek) the “Servant Girl Annihilator,” a man who killed seven Austin women—five of them black women—and one man in 1884 and 1885.

My quest was part of a self-guided walking tour produced by Radiolab, the New York-based public radio program beloved by science nerds, and Detour, a walking tour app that uses GPS technology to guide iPhone-equipped listeners through San Francisco and now, for the first time, Austin.

Ellen Horne, executive producer at Radiolab, told me that her folks and the Detour crew decided to “meet in the middle” here in Austin and produce a show for March’s SXSW crowds. They swiftly stumbled upon the story of what many historians have called America’s—and maybe the world’s—first serial killer.

“I’m still haunted by this story,” Horne told me in a phone interview. So, I think, is just about everyone who delves into the dark history of these murders, which so frightened 19th-century Austinites that their legacy lives on even today with the city’s signature “moonlight towers,” erected to cast crime-deterrent swaths of light across a then-gas-lit downtown.

The tour begins in a downtown hat shop, where listeners are encouraged to take in the smells of old colognes. It then meanders along Waller Creek, into St. David’s Episcopal Church and its labyrinth, through the Driskill Hotel, into the parking garage that now stands at one of the murder sites, and concludes—I won’t give too much away—in a spot with a stunning panoramic view of downtown.

The murders were gruesome. Black women, mostly domestic servants, were mutilated, raped and killed by a still-unidentified assailant. An 11-year-old black girl also fell victim to the “annihilator,” as did a black man who was in a relationship with one of the victims.

But it wasn’t until two white women were brutally murdered in their homes that the city’s newspapers began to really take notice. Some things haven’t changed much in 130 years.

“The murders of the black victims are heinously under-covered” in the historical record, Horne told me. “That’s a real regret of ours.”

As a result, the tour skims lightly over an exploration of race relations in 1885-era Austin—a particular disappointment in light of Austin’s continuing unwillingness to grapple with its history of racism, the intentional ouster of its black community to the East Side in the early 20th century, and the current gentrification of that same area.

Atmospherically, though, the tour is a remarkable bit of time travel, accompanied at one especially moving point by a song from Austin’s own Shakey Graves that imagines the youngest victim’s revenge on her killer.

I’m powerfully skeptical of outsiders who attempt to tell Texas stories, but I have to give credit to the meticulous Radiolab research team; they spent weeks here testing and editing their story, which is narrated—at times perhaps overly folksily—by an actress playing a ghost of Austin past.

Horne admits they approached the project with some “naïveté,” but they managed to produce not just an intriguing murder mystery, but an aural snapshot of a time well before Austin became the cultural and tech hub it is today.

“We really wanted to make this a story about the year and not the murders,” said Horne, who made the editorial decision not to play into the sensational and sexual gore fantasies that, as she put it, often accompany “obsession with serial killers.”

And while historians have some idea of who the “annihilator” may have been—a black man named Nathan Elgin who was shot by police in 1886—Radiolab keeps the tour’s ending ambiguous, having come to believe that the murders were not the work of just one person.

“The thought that it wasn’t one serial killer is much scarier,” Horne said.

But even without resolution, the tour leaves a lasting impression with listeners who, I think, will see the city very differently after they’ve looked at it with century-old eyes.

President Obama
President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and senior staff applaud in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, as the House passes the health care reform bill, March 21, 2010.


Texans enrolled in the Affordable Care Act health insurance marketplace can continue to receive federal subsidies thanks to a decision Thursday by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court ruled against a claim challenged whether residents of certain states can receive the help. Texas and 33 other states that did not set up state-operated marketplaces could have been affected by the decision.

“I think this is a huge victory for Texas consumers, and it will ensure that health coverage remains affordable for hundreds of thousands of Texans,” said Stacey Pogue, senior policy analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

About 832,000 Texans were at risk of losing premium tax credits, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), a national health care research organization. Claudette Newsome is one of those Texans.

Newsome, 42, is self-employed and receives a tax subsidy that helps pay for health insurance for herself and her two children. With the King v. Burwell decision, she will get to keep the $585 federal subsidy she receives each month for her family, which brings her monthly payment to about $183.

Newsome recently found a lump in her neck and is going through preliminary testing to determine what it is. She said that if the court had ruled against Texans like her, she would have had to change doctors, restart testing, and find alternative financial assistance for her care.

“I’m just happy that the answer came through like it did today in favor of so I can keep my health insurance and I can go to the doctor and take care of this,” said Newsome, a Houston community leader with the Texas Organizing Project.

Eighty-six percent of Texans enrolled in the federal marketplace receive financial assistance in the form of premium tax credits or cost-sharing subsidies. They would have seen a 305 percent increase in the average premium without tax credits, according to Kaiser.

If the court had ruled that customers in states without their own marketplaces were not eligible for the subsidies, analysts say it could have dealt a serious blow to the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

The exodus of Americans from the marketplace would have caused premiums to skyrocket since insurance companies would still need to cover pre-existing conditions, according to Pogue. This would lead to higher insurance costs for anyone who buys insurance coverage directly from insurers, and ultimately, to more people giving up insurance.

Top government leaders in Texas have spoken against Obamacare and the recent ruling.

Gov. Greg Abbott penned an editorial earlier this week calling for Congress and governors to sound Obamacare’s “death knell.” Following the ruling, he called for the election of a president who would repeal the law.

Attorney General Ken Paxton called Obamacare “one of the broadest overreaches of federal authority in our nation’s history,” and said Washington leaders should work against it.

Some Democratic state lawmakers supported the court’s decision.

“It’s time for opponents to face facts,” said Donna Howard (D-Austin). “The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is the law of the land, and it’s working. Since its enactment, the rate of uninsured has dropped significantly, the growth in health care costs has slowed, and provider choice through the online health insurance marketplace is increasing.”


Gary Cartwright reads from The Best I Recall at 3 p.m. on Saturday, June 27, at Scholz Garten.

At the end of award-winning Texas reporter and writer Gary Cartwright’s new memoir, The Best I Recall, I liked the journalist and knew not how I felt about the man, which is probably exactly what he intended. Cartwright attended Arlington High School, spent some years at the University of Texas as an undergraduate, and eventually got his B.A. in journalism from Texas Christian University. He wrote for a variety of Texas outlets across the six decades of his career, including the Fort Worth Press, Dallas Morning News and Texas Monthly, as well as national publications such as Rolling Stone and Esquire. He also wrote screenplays and multiple books, including Blood Will Tell and HeartWiseGuy.

At the Dallas Times Herald in the 1960s, as Dallas was first becoming a sports town, Cartwright, Bud Shrake and Dan Jenkins comprised what Cartwright refers to as “the best staff of sportswriters anywhere, ever.” Together, he writes, they created “a new take on the tradition of sportswriting,” one that valued prose and the author’s voice over game summaries and box scores, a style that soon “swept the country and became standard” in sports journalism.

The Best I Recall
By Gary Cartwright
The University of Texas Press
272 pages; $27.95

But Cartwright covered sports for only eight years, and soon got out of the newspaper business altogether, citing as the reason two incidents involving the editorial staff at the Dallas Morning News: in one, they killed his story on a local country club that canceled a tennis tournament rather than allow famed black player Arthur Ashe to compete; in the other, editors muted his firsthand coverage of the 1965 Watts riots (Cartwright happened to be in Los Angeles covering the Cowboys).

He went on to do freelance work and eventually become a senior editor with Texas Monthly. The smoothest part of The Best I Recall is the section in which Cartwright recalls his favorite stories for that publication, providing some backstory to a piece he wrote about the impact of poverty on Texas families and stories that helped two different inmates get out of prison. Another highlight is his retelling of the night he spent in 1976 interviewing the stripper and stag movie actress Candy Barr at her home. Here Cartwright offers a thorough sketch of a woman famous for her body but past her prime, trying to determine how much to tell of her past and her present to a reporter she wasn’t sure she could trust.

One comes away from The Best I Recall respecting Cartwright as a journalist, but how readers may relate to him as a person is much more complicated. As a young, swashbuckling reporter in Dallas, Cartwright was a drinking, pill-popping, joint-smoking, sometimes-cocaine-sniffing man’s man who, he admits, had a “billowing ego” that clouded his own ability to see that his first marriage was falling apart. The nostalgia that seeps into this section is full of a masculine bravado about which Cartwright seems both proud and regretful. He writes of how he and his colleagues often spent time at work watching, through the windows of a hotel across the alley, “while black hookers worked their little hearts out”; about the time he and a friend switched beds to see if each other’s wives would notice (they did); and how he broke the jaws of both of his first two wives—part of a pattern of violent behavior that includes Cartwright hitting a man over the head with a shovel and kicking another down the stairs.

Toward the end of the book, Cartwright carefully and beautifully relates reconnecting with his son and traveling with his third wife, exhibiting his growth as a person. (Both storylines end with his respective loved ones dying of cancer.) But shortly after, we learn that he pushed his fourth wife down during a fight, and that this is why he was not at her bedside when she, too, died of cancer. Cartwright writes, “I will surely burn in hell for such wanton carelessness and disregard for others.” At points in The Best I Recall, it is hard to argue with that assertion.

In the book’s prologue, Cartwright writes that it is up to the reader to “decide if the stories have a ring of truth.” But the more compelling work, at least for this reader, lies not in parsing the lines between fact or fiction (does that ultimately matter?), but in figuring out what to make of the storyteller.


Off to the Races

GOP primary season is almost upon us. Duck.
2015 Inauguration Day Capitol
Kelsey Jukam
A man waves a flag in front of the Texas State Capitol during the 2015 inauguration.

Rest easy, politics junkies and policy-minded sadomasochists—the carnival is beginning anew. The brief lull that follows the end of the legislative session is wrapping up. Texas politicians are now free to raise money after a six-month prohibition coinciding with the session, and many of the key figures in the more interesting primary races are snapping into place. For much of the next year, Texans with a high tolerance for bullshit will have the opportunity to follow along with the finest still-legal bloodsport in the state: Republican legislative primaries.

There will be a lot of other elections happening, of course. The GOP presidential primary in March has the potential to be relatively exciting. It’s earlier in the primary calendar next year than it was in 2012, and the field of power-craving loons currently assembled contains no less than five Texas-connected candidates—Jeb Bush, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Rick Santorum—who have an incentive to stay in the race until after the state’s say-so.

But next year’s other events are likely to be considerably less exciting. Texas won’t be competitive in the presidential general election. Democrats stand to pick up a few state House seats—and maybe a congressional seat or two—but that won’t change things much. There will only be one sleepy statewide race: for a seat on the state’s Railroad Commission.

Of all the 2016 contests, the GOP legislative primaries have the most consequence for Texans. If you understand the Legislature as a battle between moderate Republicans and the right—a simplification, but good enough for our purposes—the GOP primaries are the filter through which one side or the other gains strength and foot soldiers.

They have huge consequences for the state; and historically, almost no one votes in them. Fewer than 1 in 35 Texans cast a vote in the 2014 runoff when Dan Patrick turned Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst into an occasional op-ed writer—and down-ballot races were decided by tiny margins. When moderate-ish GOP incumbent Bob Deuell lost his seat to tea partier Bob Hall, whose primary occupation in office has been protecting the state from electromagnetic pulse weapons, the race was decided by just 300 votes.

This go-round, like in 2014, the headlining bouts will be between those state representatives allied with House Speaker Joe Straus and those allied with Midland oilman Tim Dunn and the organizing groups he and his friends help fund. Straus is no commie, but the House remains the most consequential block on right-wing legislative efforts, and his enemies—a faction now led in part by Patrick—have struggled to unseat him for years.

Just three of the 11 Republicans who organized the coup that dethroned former House Speaker Tom Craddick in 2009 could be in office after next November—Straus himself, state Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) and state Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth). Cook and Geren stimulate the ire of right-wingers almost as much as Straus, but barring unexpected developments both men, facing weak opponents, would seem to be favorites in their races. And Straus has recruited new allies to replace old ones over the year. Having already announced he’s seeking another term as speaker, he’s probably a lock to retain it—unless, you know, the American Phoenix Foundation has footage of him at a strip club or a vegan restaurant.

Still, the replacement of old hands with new ones has a consequential effect on how the body runs. Several moderate dealmakers probably bear some of the responsibility for the weak session we just had. This time, we’re losing a few more Republican statesmen. State Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) is retiring. He was one of the few GOPers to openly criticize the Legislature’s fiscal irresponsibility this session, and he helped prevent some really bad bills from coming to a vote, the effort to repeal in-state tuition for undocumented students among them.

State Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) is leaving too, along with other seniors such as state Rep. Jim Keffer (R-Eastland), a top Straus lieutenant. Aycock is a GOPer who genuinely cares about public education. As chairman of the House committee that oversees it he tried to do right by the system, though his efforts sometimes dead-ended. Eltife and Aycock represent, in some ways, the best instincts of the Senate and House. In many ways, it has not been a great decade for Texas state government. As long as the state’s political culture is in thrall to the Republican primary system, Texans need lawmakers like them to mitigate possible damage.

Now they’ll be gone. What kind of people will replace them? Here’s six GOP races to watch to take the temperature of the state’s political climate.

Rep. Giovanni Capriglione (R-Southlake)
Patrick Michels
Rep. Giovanni Capriglione (R-Southlake) on the House floor.

The weirdest race shaping up—and perhaps the most entertaining, if you enjoy carnival barking—is a tea party attempt to can state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione (R-Southlake), who tea partiers installed in office just three years ago. Gio, as he’s known, has gone soft, you see. Last year, he was much like the rest of the tea party caucus: He handed out chocolate coins on the floor to promote his efforts to bring Texas gold home from the Federal Reserve. (That passed this year, oddly enough.) But just before this year’s session, he told a disbelieving and furious crowd in Tarrant County that he’d be voting for Straus for speaker over hapless tea party favorite Scott Turner.

Now the same people who helped get him elected are out to cut his jugular and wring him dry like a wet rag, thanks to Very Serious Disagreements About Policy. In May, Northeast Tarrant Tea Party leader Julie McCarty discovered she’d been banned from commenting on his Facebook page. He’d gone full Judas. Upon such bans is state history made: In an emotional post to her followers, she announced the gloves were coming off. A primary was coming. Capriglione characterized his critics as “fringe” and a “small minority” to The Dallas Morning News.

Tim Dunn’s house organ, a blog called AgendaWise, suggested McCarty primary him herself. She seemed delighted by the suggestion but has elsewhere hinted another challenger is forthcoming. Now, some of the best organized tea party groups in the state seem poised to spend resources this election cycle further making an enemy out of someone with whom they still agree on most policy particulars. It’s primaries all the way down, man.

Those two top Straus lieutenants, Cook and Geren, each have primary challengers. Could the challengers win? Sure, I guess. But each challenger leaves something to be desired. Geren will face Bo French. French, his site announces, is a “life-long Christian” and “the next generation of conservative leadership,” and he has the smile, hair, and blonde family to prove it. He also has a history of terrible acrimony with Taya Kyle, the widow of Chris Kyle of American Sniper fame. If you want to run in a GOP primary in North Texas, one thing you assuredly do not want to be is the dread and mortal enemy of Kyle’s widow, a woman who has become something akin to the Virgin Mother of DFW. It is pretty mystifying.

Rep. Byron Cook
Courtesy of Byron Cook via Facebook
State Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana)

Cook faces Thomas McNutt, a member of the McNutt family that owns Collin Street Bakery, “world renowned for its fruitcakes.” Thomas seems like a nice guy, but the McNutt family and its patriarch, Bill, have a long and sordid history of creepy behavior toward women, substance abuse, legal problems and other demons, written up extensively in D Magazine and other publications.

Say what you will about the anti-Straus coalition, but their candidate recruitment schemes could use some work.

There will also be a few primary challenges in the other direction. Tea party stalwart state Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R-Irving) will face another race with former state Rep. Bennett Ratliff, who lost the GOP primary to Rinaldi in 2014 by just 94 votes. With greater turnout in a presidential year possibly favoring more moderate Republicans, Rinaldi will be a high-profile target.

And in the Senate—pretty right-wing already, of course—two races could push it further right. Eltife’s retirement has sparked a flurry of interest from prospective candidates, but the two most prominent are probably state Rep. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), dutiful Christian conservative, and state Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview). Both are more conservative than Eltife in several ways, though Simpson is more of an iconoclast-libertarian (and a proponent of legal pot).

Also retiring is state Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay), who long ago ossified into a truculent, paid-for defender of industry with few other convictions besides humiliating freshmen. He’s not much of a loss, to be honest. If state Rep. Susan King (R-Abilene) decides to run, and wins, it may even be a step forward for the Senate—but it’s a race to watch. This is, after all, a district that overlaps with that of state representative and Muslim-whisperer Molly White, who came from obscurity to triumph in her race. She almost certainly won’t run, but another like-minded citizen-activist might.

There will also be a number of primary challenges for Texas congressmen, those filthy RINOs. Blake Farenthold and Lamar Smith face challengers. Up in the Metroplex, there’s been some talk that freshmen state senators Don Huffines and Bob Hall could challenge Pete Sessions and Jeb Hensarling, respectively—they could do that and keep their senate seats—but both have so far demurred. A Hall staffer emailed on Monday to say that he had “no interest” in Hensarling’s seat, and that he was “working hard to make a difference here on the state level.”

Last year’s lege primaries brought with them assault charges, a knife fight, revelations of alleged wife-beating, an ocean of mendacious lies, racial and religious tension and Sun Tzu’s Art of War. This year, it will all be amplified by a pretty insane presidential contest. Good luck, everyone!

Planned Parenthood in Waco.
Jen Reel
Title X is also the only publicly funded family planning program that does not require minors to get their parents’ consent when seeking contraception.

In the latest politically motivated attack on Planned Parenthood, Texas is poised to lose millions in funding for teen pregnancy prevention, family planning services and STI screenings, but this time the threat is coming from Congress.

Last week the House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services and Education subcommittee approved recommendations to cut all $101 million federal funding for the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program and all $286 million of Title X federal funding, a 40-year-old program that provides states with money to cover birth control and STI screenings for adults and adolescents. In the last year, Texas received more than $20 million from the programs combined.

The full House Appropriations Committee will vote on these budget measures on Wednesday.

According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, teen pregnancy prevention efforts and publicly subsidized contraception not only save tax dollars by helping women and teens avoid unplanned pregnancies and the costs associated with the births that follow, but also reduce abortions.

Over the last five years, Texas has received more than $37 million, about $7.4 million annually, through the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, which is administered by the federal Office of Adolescent Health. Five entities, including school districts, university medical schools and nonprofits, have used that funding to develop evidence-based sex education, sexual health and parent communication programs.

According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, Texas ranks among the top five states for the highest teen pregnancy and repeat teen birth rates. If TPPP funding is cut, Texas will lose out on even more money over the next five years to implement evidence-based programs more broadly across the state.

“These are programs that are proven to work,” said Gwen Daverth, president of the Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. “There is a very strong chance that Texas would be a very large recipient of that $101 million that’s on the chopping block.”

In addition to eliminating the 5-year-old Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, the congressional budget proposal reappropriates $10 million of that funding to “sexual risk avoidance” (read: abstinence-only) programs.

Also on the chopping block is Title X, which serves as an important source of funding for contraception, STI testing and treatment and other basic health care for Texas women, men and adolescents at a time when reproductive and preventive services are hard to come by in the state. According to the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, more than two-thirds of Title X patients are poor.

Approximately $14 million in Title X funding flows to Texas every year. The Women’s Health and Family Planning Association of Texas manages the grant and distributes the money to 29 providers statewide, which operate 100 clinics that serve about 140,000 Texans. The organization has been in charge of Title X in Texas since 2013, when the state health department lost the grant after it cut state family planning funding by more than $70 million in 2011 in an effort to defund Planned Parenthood.

Title X is also the only publicly funded family planning program that does not require minors to get their parents’ consent when seeking contraception. Nationally, every $1 spent on public family planning services saves about $7 in related costs of births, and in STI and cancer treatment, according to the Guttmacher Institute. In 2010, the program saved Texas more than $300 million in tax dollars.

“On average it costs less than $240 dollars to provide a year’s worth of family-planning services to each client,” Fran Hagerty, president and CEO of the Women’s Health and Family Planning Association of Texas, wrote in an email to the Observer. “Compare that to the cost of just one Medicaid paid birth at over $12,000, and it doesn’t take a math whiz to figure out the financial benefit of the Title X program to Texas and the nation.”

The proposals to eliminate funding are the latest attempt by GOP lawmakers to cut public funding for Planned Parenthood. House Republicans in Congress have tried for four years to eliminate Title X funding because some of that money goes to Planned Parenthood health centers, though no Title X funds, or any public dollars go toward abortion services. In the past, the U.S. Senate, controlled by Democrats until last year, has been able to stave off attacks, but with the Republicans controlling both the U.S. House and Senate, reproductive health advocates are calling on elected officials to reject the cuts. U.S Reps. Kay Granger (R-Fort Worth), Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo), John Culberson (R-Houston) and John Carter (R-Houston) serve on the full House Appropriations Committee. Requests to their offices for comment were not returned by deadline.

The Texas Legislature, meanwhile, wrapped another legislative session last month having kicked Planned Parenthood out of a state program that has nothing to do with abortion. Over the weekend, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a two-year state budget that excludes the organization from the state Breast and Cervical Cancer Services program, despite a nearly three week-long protest by activists, women’s health advocates and cancer survivors calling on Abbott to line-item veto the measure. The BCCS was the last state program Planned Parenthood participated in, after the 2011 Texas Legislature wrote the organization out of state family planning programs.

Polunsky Unit
The Allan B. Polunsky Unit near Livingston houses condemned Texans under some of the nation's harshest death row conditions.

Texas executes more of its citizens than any state in the country, and there’s new evidence that what we call justice is actually a corrupt, inhumane and morally indefensible system.

Alex Hannaford’s cover story this month shows an alarming correlation between trauma that happens to adolescent boys, the biological damage it does to their brains, how that altered physiology leads to violent behavior in their adult lives and their ultimate journeys to death row.

It’s been clear for a long time that poverty, violence, poor education and crime are interconnected. (We executed a 45-year-old man last year whose education ended in fourth grade and a 53-year-old man this year whose education ended in sixth grade.) And 97 percent of the people on death row are men.

We traditionally have used that sociological framework to examine homicidal behavior. Then, we find a personal comfort level with it and our individual moral codes.

But new studies and the data Hannaford collected from Texas death row inmates show the situation is more complex. There also are biological factors at work, and that discovery raises new questions about the morality of the Texas system.

As recently as the 1980s, professionals believed that the human brain was genetically determined by the time of birth. Now, studies by American and British scholars show that trauma actually changes the physiology of the brain and that those altered brains work differently in males and females. (Females tend to process the stress and trauma internally, directing destructive action at themselves; men tend to process it externally, focusing violence on other people.)

Male children who are physically, emotionally and/or sexually traumatized experience physical changes to their brains that make violence a common response to similar experiences later in life.

When that violence leads to a capital crime, the state places the man on death row, where the average inmate spends a full decade in an environment of emotional isolation, physical depravation, authoritarian relationships, and little or no interaction with any type of family or support network.

It’s a classic list designed for an assault on someone’s mental well-being. In fact, the state essentially drives many of those waiting to be executed insane. Then, we stick a needle in the arm of that adult traumatized child and kill him.

It is a shameful, barbaric process that many of us choose to look past, but every person who loves Texas should look directly at it. Texas is better than this.

The Fischer Store Bridge
Courtesy of Forrest Wilder
The Fischer Store Bridge near Wimberley was toppled by the Blanco River floodwaters.


About a week after Memorial Day flooding devastated my hometown of Wimberley, I went to help some friends clean up their dad’s place on a creek that feeds the Blanco River. The neighborhood looked like a yard sale from hell.

Pat had been rescued at 4 a.m. by neighbors. He was up to his neck in nasty water, his possessions bobbing around him like sentimental flotsam and jetsam, his three daughters conferencing on his cellphone about what to do. Most of his possessions were reduced to junk, but he salvaged his father’s World War II journals, his Vietnam War army shirt, a campaign poster from his run for state representative.

The skies were soggy that day and I spent only an hour or so in rubber boots and a dust mask before a sheriff’s deputy came around to warn us out of the river bottom. Nobody was taking any chances.

After the flood came the stories. The one that haunts me the most is about the Corpus Christi families who rode the river on the roof of their vacation home until it was smashed on the Ranch Road 12 bridge. Eight of the nine people in the home died. They had enough time for Laura McComb, whose two small children were with her, to call and say goodbye to her sister. Can you imagine?

Some family friends who live on the river describe watching, in the middle of the night, a car float downstream with its headlights on. They heard neighbors screaming for help, only to see in the light of day that some of the houses were gone, scoured off their slabs.

You have to understand, the Blanco River in its usual mood is a placid, peaceful brook, barely a river at all. Only ankle-deep in many places, the gin-clear water moves briskly over fluted, whalebone-white limestone. Under normal conditions, flowing at 100 cubic feet per second or less, it’s a glorified trickle. On its best days, the Blanco is an edenic ribbon of rope swings, seeping cliffs and magnificent cypress trees, some more than 500 years old, that line the river like sentinels. But the river has another side. Central Texas is Flash Flood Alley, home of sudden, awe-inspiring deluges.

Even so, the Memorial Day flooding is unlike anything anyone has ever seen. The river crested at 40 feet before the gauge broke—7 feet higher than the record set in 1929. Though no official report has been made, some have estimated the flow peaked at 223,000 cubic feet per second, enough to fill 150 Olympic swimming pools every minute. Imagine an ocean in a ditch.

To know the river is to be staggered by what it did. A couple of weeks after the flood, a co-worker and I kayaked 14 miles of the Blanco, a stretch I know well, to get a better look at the damage. We unloaded at a private community park where we were greeted by Mitchell, who allowed us to launch our boats but complained of con-artist “sharks” and “lookie-loos” gawking in the disaster zone. He warned that some of his neighbors were ready to “go Cliven Bundy” if FEMA tried to tell them how to deal with the mess. Mitchell said he’d been doing cleanup work 22 hours a day since the flood. He seemed on edge.

How do you describe a landscape so changed? It looked like a raw wound, violently scrubbed, unhealed. Canoes wrapped around trees. Forlorn orange life jackets twisting in the trees 30 feet above the waterline. The high bridge at Fischer Store Road reduced to rubble. The few people we saw at the river’s edge spoke the same refrain: “We were lucky. Our neighbors had it worse.”

Blanco River cypress tree
Courtesy of Forrest Wilder
A large cypress tree toppled over after the Memorial Day flooding on the Blanco River

The force of the water snapped enormous, centuries-old cypress trees in half. It torqued others over, toppling them like saplings before a bulldozer. The few that still stand have been skinned alive. Imagine Northern California without redwoods, or Vermont without maples. That’s the Blanco without the cypress. It won’t be the same for generations, if ever.

One of the remarkable things about the May flooding across Texas was how quickly the state went from extreme drought to extreme flood. Yes, Texas’ climate is best summed as perennial drought occasionally punctuated by flooding. Yes, we’re in an El Niño cycle. But our climatic twins—drought and flood—have sprouted devil horns thanks to climate change. Extreme rainfall events are becoming more common; as the planet heats, the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere increases, priming the pump for catastrophic rainfall.

Today, climate-related disaster visits Wimberley. Tomorrow, maybe it’s your town.