As we do every year at this time, we once again join together to remember the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to try and forget all the creepy, obnoxious things that people and corporation-people had to say about his holiday.
Monday was all a little more SMH than WTF, so for the week’s strangest remarks we turn to a few regulars. We begin with lieutenant governor hopeful Dan Patrick, who asks if you know where your children are, and if they know how to count, because, as he said in a candidate forum last weekend reported in the Houston Chronicle, a great many immigrants are probably coming for them:
“[H]ardened criminals we arrested from 2008 to 2012 – not illegals who were here for a job, who got four speeding tickets, but hardened criminals – 141,000 we put in our jails just in four years in Texas.”
“They threaten your family. They threaten your life. They threaten your business. They threaten our state,” he said, adding that they were charged with 447,000 crimes including 2,000 murders and 5,000 rapes.
Those are some pretty dramatic numbers! And as Charles Kuffner has noted, they’re pretty ludicrous, too. Over that five-year stretch, Kuffner says, Texas saw just over 6,000 murders in Texas, meaning that “they” committed one third of the murders in Texas. Couple that with a congressional report which says that from 2008 to 2011, there were 219 murders committed by undocumented immigrants nationwide, and it’s a wonder any of us made it out of 2012 alive.
Enough of this scaremongering, and on to some smart border policy… Go, go, Gohmert!
“Israel has shown you can have a fence, even if it is a wire fence.”
That, of course, is the esteemed Congressman from deepest East Texas, Louie Gohmert, in the midst of an unfortunate civics lesson at Carlisle High School in Price. As the Longview News-Journal reported, government teacher David Minnix’s class invited Gohmert to speak, no doubt as some sort of “scared straight” program for aspiring politicians.
Gohmert took student questions and ran with them to some strange places, predicting “a massive rush” of 40 million people crossing the border from Mexico—”I think we’re wasting time talking about immigration reform”—and explaining why he blames Obamacare for forcing him to cite a litany of bogus costs and cancel his health insurance this week.
“I’m not homophobic,” he said, noting his gay friends say they should be able to be with whomever they want. “I agree, but if we’re going to continue society, it’s between a man and a woman. … I still want someone to explain to me how sexual relations between two men helps our species evolve forward.”
Last, we consider state Rep. Bill Zedler.
Good. That didn’t take long.
Zedler is a sort of Zen master on Twitter—he’s rarely the most offensive or sanctimonious voice in Texas politics, but there’s a bare-faced simplicity to his account that seems to perfectly distill the conservative outrage du jour. (But never actually in French!)
After the people’s filibuster ended last summer, it was Zedler who spread the word that “we had terrorist in the Texas State Senate.” During the government shutdown last fall, Zedler astutely noted, “Obama is closing down memorials, the ocean, etc, THAT HAVE NEVER BEEN SHUT DOWN BEFORE IN PREVIOUS SHUT DOWNS.”
Zedler’s tweets are CliffsNotes for Fox News, a declaration that he, too, has seen all this snark about the liberals and he gets the joke! And so this week, as the conservative backlash spread to Wendy Davis’ real biography—with all the subtlety of a gold-digger’s shovel to the head, Zedler offered this:
Wendy Davis gets ahead by making sure that her agenda comes first in her life at the expense of her children & husband— Bill Zedler (@Bill_Zedler) January 23, 2014
That might even have been his best since last week, when he offered this contribution to the intelligence debate:
since 2001 the NASA has had no discernible impact on domestic terrorism— Bill Zedler (@Bill_Zedler) January 16, 2014
As the Houston Chronicle‘s Matt Schwartz was quick to point out, Zedler was absolutely right: “There has not been a single terrorist attack on lunar soil in that time.”
Texas songwriter and wordsmith Steven Fromholz died in a hunting accident this past Sunday, Jan. 19, at age 68, when a rifle he was handling on a feral hog hunt near Eldorado, south of San Angelo, fell and discharged. According to legacy.com, Fromholz’ funeral will be held at 2 p.m. this Friday at the Ft. McKavett Cemetery near San Angelo.
Born in Temple and educated at the University of North Texas in Denton, Fromholz became one of the founding fathers of Texas folk and country, performing everywhere from Houston’s Anderson Fair to Terlingua’s Starlight Theater in Big Bend, where he periodically worked as a raft guide on the Rio Grande. His long-out-of-print debut From Here to There, with Dan McCrimmon, laid the groundwork for a sound that would be built on by a subsequent generation of Texas songwriters including Lyle Lovett, who covered Fromholz’ “Bears” and “Texas Trilogy”—a three-part ode to the tiny town of Kopperl, Texas, in Bosque County, comprising “Daybreak,” “Train Ride” and “Bosque County Romance”—on 1998′s Step Inside This House album. Willie Nelson, John Denver, Hoyt Axton and Jerry Jeff Walker have also covered Fromholz’ songs.
“Texas Trilogy” was also the inspiration for a book, Texas Trilogy: Life in a Small Texas Town, by writer Craig D. Hillis and photographer Bruce F. Jordan, published by University of Texas Press in 2002 and excerpted in the Observer.
The songs alone are legacy enough to install him in the Texas canon, but Fromholz was an accomplished storyteller in multiple modes. He was named Texas’ Poet Laureate in 2007, the same year TCU Press published his New and Selected Poems.
The Dallas Morning News published this photo essay of late-career Fromholz.
But perhaps the best way to remember him is just to listen.
2013 Texas Poet Laureate Rosemary Catacalos, a longtime San Antonio resident of Mexican and Greek heritage, makes frequent use of the Ariadne myth in her 1984 book, Again for the First Time, originally published in 1984 and recently reissued by San Antonio’s Wings Press in a 30th-anniversary edition.
Early voting for the March primaries will begin in just a month and, as usual, all eyes will be on top-ballot races with multiple viable candidates. But one far less noticeable Harris County vote may help answer a perennial political question: Does bad press make a difference in down-ballot races?
At issue is Denise Pratt, the judge for the 311th Family District Court. She faces four Republican challengers in the primary. And with good reason: She’s been mired in scandal since last October and a fresh round of allegations has just emerged. But unlike so many scandals, the accusations against Pratt have nothing to do with slush funds, tax fraud, or “hiking the Appalachian Trail.” Rather, they’re about how she does her job, if she’s negligent, whether she broke the law to cover it up.
The Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, and even local conservative bloggers have reported the debacle diligently. Defenses and explanations offered by Pratt’s lawyer have ranged from weak to nonsensical. But should Pratt win the primary, she’s likely to keep her judgeship thanks to straight-ticket voting. So if persistent, apparently well earned bad press is going to make a difference, it’ll be on March 4th.
Here’s the Denise Pratt story, also known as How to Lose Friends and Alienate Lawyers.
Pratt started strong. An experienced family law attorney, she garnered a Chronicle endorsement and beat four other candidates in the 2010 primary without a runoff. Then she won election by 10 points. But for reasons unknown, Judge Pratt fell behind. She started issuing rulings long after their hearings and letting cases pile up that needed only a signature. In May of last year, the 14th Court of Appeals reprimanded Pratt for “unreasonable” delays and ordered her to rule on a case she’d heard 10 months before, which she did.
Then the intrigue began. In June 2013, just after the appeals court slapped Pratt’s wrist, a man whose divorce case Pratt heard three months earlier finally got his ruling. His hearing had been March 25th. The ruling was dated March 25th. But the man didn’t receive notice until June. This was, he said, despite contacting Pratt’s office repeatedly and being told he’d get the ruling as soon as it was ready.
Greg Enos, a local family law attorney, was suspicious. Enos suspected Pratt had gotten in trouble, fished out an overdue case and backdated the ruling. He wrote as much in his watchdog blog, “The Mongoose,” and asked other lawyers who suspected judicial shenanigans to contact him.
They did. When Enos filed a criminal complaint against Pratt in October, he cited six cases and alleged rampant backdating. In November, 32 Houston-area family law attorneys signed a letter calling for Pratt to step down. Then the Houston Bar Association’s biennial judicial evaluations savaged her. Seventy six percent of respondents said Pratt was “poor” at following the law; 81 percent said she was bad at issuing timely rulings; 83 percent reporting she wasted attorney time; and 79 percent rating her poor at working hard and being prepared. In all, 57 percent of respondents gave her the lowest of five possible overall ranks.
But Pratt wasn’t merely unpopular. Enos’ complaint sparked an investigation by the Harris County district clerk, during which Pratt’s lead clerk, a 25-year veteran, pleaded the Fifth and resigned. Pratt heard one case in January, issued a ruling in May, and dated the ruling a day before the two-day trial actually ended.
The district attorney empaneled a grand jury to investigate whether the judge tampered with court records. Though in December the grand jury declined to indict Pratt, visiting judges did grant eight lawyers’ requests to have her removed from their cases.
And her time on the un-fun side of the bench may not be over. On Thursday, Enos filed another complaint against Pratt, this time citing what the Chronicle adorably calls a “surprise docket purge” of more than 700 cases in a month.
For obvious reasons, if a judge schedules a hearing he or she has to give the affected lawyers notice. Failure to appear can be grounds for dismissal. But according to Enos and several other lawyers, Judge Pratt dismissed hundreds of cases without warning attorneys to show up. Most of the purged cases were signed on Dec. 30 and 31, when the district clerk’s office told the Chronicle no dismissal dockets were scheduled.
It’s hard to see how Pratt thought this would go well. Her lawyer, Terry Yates, has yet to pitch a convincing explanation for any apparent improprieties, though he’s made up for in quantity what his explanations lack in quality. Among the justifications offered are:
- Lawyers didn’t receive notice because of the new electronic filing system in the District Clerk’s office, which that office’s spokesperson told the Chronicle “has nothing to do with the mailing of notices.”
- Lawyers with dismissed cases have “just got to file a motion to reinstate…so it’s really no big deal,” Yates said to the Chronicle.
- Purging cases at the end of the year is normal, though in December Pratt dismissed at least 561 and the eight other family court judges dismissed between 28 and 121.
- Pratt has the most pending cases of any family court—more than 3,000—which Yates told the Chronicle is “really a legislative issue to get more family courts here so the dockets are manageable.”
- And of course, no litany of excuses would be complete without this old chestnut: The accusations against Pratt are, according to her email to GOP precinct chairs, all “rumors that are being spread by the Democrats and the liberal media.”
Even if all the criminal and more moustache-twirling allegations against Pratt are untrue, there’s no question that she issues tardy rulings, lets cases pile up, and is held in abysmal esteem by the lawyers with whom she works. All indicators suggest, in short, that she does a bad job. She’s also not a seasoned incumbent letting things slide; this is her first term. And she’s drawn four challengers in the primary.
One would think all this would doom her, but besides incumbency she has one advantage: While the local conservative press has turned against her, the Republican Party hasn’t withdrawn its endorsement. Thus, Pratt’s primary pits the media against the establishment.
It’s not Chris Christie-level drama, but for the hundreds of Houstonians whose divorces and child visitation rights hang in the balance, the quality of a single judge matters very much indeed. The question is, come March 4th, will that matter to the voters?
The North Texas citizens at the Texas Railroad Commission hearing this morning tried to make it as simple as possible: For as long as anyone could remember, there hadn’t been earthquakes in Azle and surrounding areas. Then the fracking boom took off and the wastewater injection wells went in. Soon the earthquakes started, more than 30 in just the past few months, rattling homes and nerves. A considerable amount of research, including work by SMU scientists, links wastewater injection wells to earthquakes.
“No disrespect, but this isn’t rocket science here,” said Linda Stokes, the mayor of Reno, a small town 20 miles northwest of downtown Fort Worth. “Common sense tells you the wells are playing a big role in this.”
And just in case the rocket science theme wasn’t emphasized enough, a bona fide rocket scientist, Gale Wood of Azle, took his turn at the mic.
“It really does not take a rocket scientist to conclude that in certain geologically sensitive areas, the pumping of fluids is the probable cause of earthquakes,” Wood said. “There has been enough data collected over the last few years to support this statement.”
People in the Azle area have grown increasingly angry at the Texas Railroad Commission, which has pledged to hire a seismologist to study the issue, but has refused to shut down the suspect injection wells. Almost 1,000 people attended a raucous Jan. 2 meeting in Azle, organized by Railroad Commissioner David Porter. Residents asked the commission for a 90-day moratorium on wastewater injections in the Azle area—a call reiterated today.
Mack Smith, 72, described being woken up in the middle of the night by a recent quake and grabbing onto his bed to keep from being knocked to the floor. “Just give us some peace,” Smith said. “Stop the injection wells for a period of time.”
One advantage of a moratorium, citizens argued, would be to see if the earthquakes stop or diminish.
But commissioners, including Republican Chairman Barry Smitherman, who is running for Texas attorney general, made it clear that they have no plans to do so. Smitherman mentioned several times today that two of the suspect injection wells closest to the quake epicenter in Azle have seen reductions in the amount of fluids injected even as earthquake activity continues.
“If it had ramped up and continued to ramp up, then that might’ve been the culprit,” Smitherman said. Smitherman seemed to be suggesting that the frequency of earthquakes is linked to the rate of fluid injection. However, as NPR-StateImpact Texas has reported, the more important factor may be the cumulative total of wastewater injected.
While touting the benefits of fracking—and standing behind a weirdly technical definition of fracking to avoid making a connection between the hydraulic fracturing process and the disposal of the wastewater that results—Smitherman would promise only to study the issue more.
“We are still investigating the connection, we want to find out what the connection is, if any,” he said. “Once we find out, then we can hope to take additional steps.”
Meanwhile, folks in Azle are trying to make the best of it. One man, who described himself as “Santa Claus trying to do Elvis,” played a version of “All Shook Up”:
I’m in Azle,
I’m all shook up
My hands are shaking
And my knees are weak
My roof’s falling in and I’m doing my best
It hurts so much
It scares me to death
I’m in Azle, I’m all shook up
Plenty of his neighbors sang along today.
This is Part Thirteen in an occasional series of Q&As with Texans involved in issues of the environment and energy. (Read Part One with Bee Moorhead here, Part Two with Andy Sansom here, Part Three with Katherine Hayhoe here, Part Four with Patrick Kennedy here, Part Five with Michael Banks here, Part Six with Gabriel Eckstein here, Part Seven with John Nielsen-Gammon here, Part Eight with Tad Patzek here, Part Nine with Charles Porter here, Part 10 with Carlos Perez de Alejo here, Part 11 with Kate Galbraith here, and Part 12 with John Nielsen-Gammon here.)
Adele Houghton is the founder of Biositu, LLC, a Houston-based consulting firm dedicated to, in her words: “leveraging environmental sustainability to enhance community health.” The idea is that the buildings we occupy, the streets we walk and drive on and the landscapes that surround us can mean the difference between life and death when it comes to extreme climatic events. As the effects of climate change continue to threaten vulnerable populations across the world, Houghton believes it is more important than ever for cities and states to prepare their communities with that in mind.
Government agencies, professional associations and developers hire Biositu to help them plan and build in a way that safeguards the environment, but also protects communities from the current and future effects of climate change. After becoming a licensed architect at 29, Houghton pursued a master’s degree in public health at Johns Hopkins.
A native of Houston, Houghton currently splits her time between her hometown and Austin, and travels across the country to present her research. Our Q&A, edited for clarity and brevity, follows:
Texas Observer: You founded Biositu because you believe that smart planning and policy are based on the intersection of green building, climate change and public health. I think most people understand the connection between green building and climate change, but can you explain how public health fits in?
Adele Houghton:The way that green building and climate change are talked about most of the time focuses on one aspect of climate change, which has to do with the cause: greenhouse gas emissions. The building sector is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions so that’s why there’s been a big effort in areas around energy efficiency and renewable energy to reduce those emissions. But buildings … are also the places where we shelter during storms or other climatic events, and the rest of the built environment—sidewalks, roads, parks—can either contribute to or can reduce the impact of a climatic event.
A climatic event that’s been a major issue in Austin and Central Texas, and actually Texas in general, is extreme heat. [Some] cities and areas are more prone to the effects of a heat wave because they don’t have as much vegetation or as much tree cover, and then you add onto that that maybe there’s a population there that’s susceptible to negative health outcomes during a heat event. People who are not able to afford to keep their air conditioner running during a heat event tend to live in areas that also do not have as much vegetation or as much tree cover. So the built environment is exacerbating and underlying potential health vulnerability to extreme heat.
Other examples that we’ve seen recently are flooding, with the flood down in [Austin’s] Onion Creek a few months ago. That occurred in low-lying areas that are prone to flooding; [that development] probably shouldn’t have been allowed to be built there in the first place. A lot of the time the people who live in those areas are predisposed to being more vulnerable, for example, by not being able to get out. They don’t have a car because they may be from a population that doesn’t have a huge amount of resources. So what you see when you’re adding the public health layering to what’s already discussed in the climate change and green building world is that the type of population that lives or works or travels through a vulnerable area can either reduce the impact of an event [or exacerbate it].
TO: Do you think that this interconnectedness between the three things has gone ignored? Or do you think that now organizations and governments are catching onto the idea that planning for the impacts of climate change and protecting the public’s health go hand in hand?
AH: I think it’s a mixed bag. There’s definitely growing recognition that adaptation is something that needs to be considered alongside with mitigation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions), which has really been the focus of most climate programs until now. Adaptation means responding to and preparing for the changes that are occurring because of climate change … Just over the past two years a number of municipalities and states that have started down the road of reducing their greenhouse gas emissions have also realized they need to prepare for and start responding to these increased risks related to climate change. Whether or not they include a health component is another question. I think adaptation in and of itself is really useful and valuable; when you also bring in some of the population health data that the health department can contribute—particularly if you bring it in in a mapping or geospatial kind of way—it makes it easier to target which areas combine these two vulnerabilities, the vulnerability of the built environment and the vulnerability of the population.
A lot of the time adaptation work that’s going on is focusing almost entirely on infrastructure and buildings and isn’t providing that overlay of looking at how does the population change this equation. Does it make it more necessary to adapt or less necessary to adapt? Or do we need to adapt in a way that we don’t realize because we need to pay attention to the population? It gets even more complicated when you think about how the population is going to change in the future and in a state like Texas that’s particularly important because of the population growth that’s happening here.
TO: I’ve seen some climate change projections that say the higher temperatures are going to be leading to more heat waves and heat-related deaths in urban centers. So in what other ways is Texas especially vulnerable, and are urban centers more vulnerable than rural areas?
AH: That’s a really good question and I think that that’s a question where public health and health data can really help evaluate in a way that would provide information that wouldn’t be there if you were just looking at the infrastructure.
If you were just looking at the infrastructure you’d say because a rural area has got, by definition, mostly vegetative surface and not very many roads and buildings [it might not be as vulnerable]. But if you look demographically there are large areas of the state in rural areas that are lower income with an aging population that is already starting to face issues of mobility and they also potentially don’t have as much security in terms of electricity—if the electricity goes out in a rural area it’s probably not going to be repaired as quickly as in an urban area.
So I can’t tell you based on my own research what exactly is the difference between a rural and an urban area, but those might be some of the questions I would ask if I were to look at the relative vulnerability of rural versus urban areas. There hasn’t been much activity that I’m aware of in Texas in particular around climate change adaptation in rural areas. Most of it has been work in urban areas and again a lot of it has been focusing on greenhouse gas emissions reductions.
TO: Are any Texas cities catching on to the benefits of green building and planning? Are any of them considering public health impacts in their planning and projects?
AH: Most, if not all, of the major cities have started working in the realm of green building at the least. Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso have all made commitments around green building. Whether or not they explicitly mention climate change is related to the political climate of that city. In Houston, for example, there’s a big push to enhance energy efficiency, but it’s not necessarily talked about in relation to reducing the impact or the cause of climate change; it’s instead talked about in terms of making a building a better business investment because you’re not wasting energy.
There have been efforts to start focusing on climate change as well. For example in San Antonio and in Austin there have been pushes to radically increase the renewable energy use in the city and in particular in city buildings. Houston has also been trying to move their buildings over to renewable energy and they’ve been changing their vehicle fleet over to hybrid and electric vehicles. In terms of bringing public health into the conversation, I worked with the city of Austin a few years ago to develop some vulnerability maps that combine these two vulnerabilities that we’ve been talking about: the built environment and social vulnerability. We mapped out, at the neighborhood level in Travis County, where are the most vulnerable neighborhoods to extreme heat or flooding. The idea behind that project was that it could be used by the climate change program to help inform policy decisions so that resources could be distributed more to those areas that have that combined vulnerability. Since then, very recently the City Council in Austin [passed] a proposal to start addressing adaptation more directly.
In San Antonio they’ve been incorporating under the umbrella of this “green city of the future” a number of health and wellness initiatives. So the overall topic is green San Antonio, but as a component of it there’s a lot of emphasis on active living, on cycling, on trying to get people to start moving around the city in a way that doesn’t require a single person in a single car, and of course that will have many benefits in many ways. It will benefit their air pollution, because if you can get more people out of their cars that reduces the vehicle emissions. It also will benefit the population by culturally helping them to start reducing their obesity rate.
TO: So you’re talking about some Texas cities that are making efforts toward this, but overall how does Texas compare to other states in terms of at least climate change preparedness?
AH: At the city level I think there’s definitely work going on. … As a state, the politics in the state have made it very difficult to develop some sort of coordinated response to climate change. However, there’s also the fact that the death rate related to heat waves is a major priority of the state health department because it’s the number one killer from a natural disaster standpoint. Then of course flash flooding is also a major concern, in part because it’s the second killer, and it’s also a major cause of injury and is a lot more dramatic when it happens. You don’t see really dramatic images of a heat wave killing people the way that you see dramatic images of what happened in Onion Creek a few months ago.
So I think it gets more press in that sense, and similarly with hurricanes. … I think that we saw the vulnerabilities of Houston during Hurricane Ike in relation to the storm surge in a way that we hadn’t seen in real time in the past. There have definitely been studies done about it and warnings that this could happen and it definitely could become a Katrina situation—something like New Orleans could happen in Houston and I think that’s a growing realization in the city. So that’s definitely become more of a priority as well.
But because there’s no state coordination around the topic … it makes it difficult to justify economically making the changes to the built environment that are needed in order to enhance our resilience. In comparison, there are other states—California and Massachusetts are two great examples—where there’s been a real focus on combining an approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions as well as changing policies, changing the built environment to enhance resilience and really working across state agencies to coordinate so that the health department becomes a major part of the process.
In California a few years ago they passed the first legislation, as far as I know, that combines green building land use policy with climate change mitigation and adaptation. It’s basically a requirement to the cities and metropolitan regions in the state saying when you’re developing your land use policy you need to be paying attention to how those plans are protecting the environment and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as making your city or region more resilient to climate change. New York state has done something similar … And Massachusetts has done something similar. So it seems like there’s a movement with the states really taking this on in an active and vocal sort of way to say at the state level what we’re going to try to do is coordinate across agencies so that we understand what the vulnerabilities are, [and how] social infrastructure and policy infrastructure can either stand in the way of progress or can benefit resilience, and then leave it to the local [government] to develop strategies and policies and actual projects.
TO: Do you think that’s what needs to happen in Texas? What do you think is the most important change that needs to happen here, and does it need to happen at the state level?
AH: I do think that, assuming we could remove the politicization of the term “climate change” from the discussion, the approach of creating a statewide framework and then leaving it to the locals or to a metropolitan region to figure out what makes the most sense for that region, seems like something that would be politically palatable in Texas. I think the problem is that there’s been so much focus and wasted energy on denying whether or not climate change is happening, and why is it happening that it makes it difficult to take a step back and objectively look at this approach, [which] is very federalist as a foundation so it’s something that Texas politicians would be supportive of if they weren’t so concerned about denying that climate change is happening.
The Washington Post dubbed James Magnuson’s new novel “a triumphantly preposterous fish-out-of-water campus caper,” and Famous Writers I Have Known has garnered an abundance of similar kudos. The book’s been called a satire, a romp, a farce, and a gleeful jab at the world of MFA writing programs—one that Magnuson, director of UT’s prestigious Michener Center for Writers, is well positioned to write. Magnuson will read selections from Famous Writers I Have Known at the Bullock Texas State History Museum at 7 p.m. on Jan. 21 as part of the museum’s Texas Artists Series.
The book opens on con man Frankie Abandonato and follows his exploits as he poses as reclusive Salinger-esque author V.S. Mohle in order to weasel his way into elderly MFA program benefactor Rex Schoeninger’s bank account. The MFA program in question is fictional, but it resembles the Michener Center in more ways than one; likewise, Schoeninger can be read as both a parody of and tribute to the late James Michener. Frankie’s scheme is destined to fail, but not before Magnuson pokes a semester’s worth of fun at the writers and academics his con man encounters.
Magnuson’s story is lighthearted and playful, while still shedding a gently critical light on the eccentricities and absurdities of graduate writing education. But Abandonato’s deft infiltration of the literary world raises a question not easily glossed over: Are writers and con men really so different? Both rely on a certain amount of theatricality; both are actors playing a role; both tend to make it up as they go along. Frankie may not be V. S. Mohle, but he’s a phenomenal storyteller regardless. As is Magnuson.
His will be the second performance of the Bullock Museum’s Texas Artists Series, a program that aims to connect Texas history with live performances showcasing the music, theater, and literature that bring the stories of Texas to life. Magnuson’s reading promises a whimsical portrait of a program few have the good fortune to get into, and an artful reminder that nothing—authors included—should be taken too seriously.
Yesterday, the Houston Chronicle reported that the Texas driver’s license application asks drivers whether they’ve been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder. The question isn’t new—the Department of Public Safety has asked since the 1970s. Nor has it gone unnoticed; state Rep. Garnet Coleman has been trying to have it removed for the last few legislative sessions. But it’s an important story because, in several ways, it’s about what happens when government and reality collide. (Spoiler: reality loses.)
First, the question is overly broad. It asks, specifically, whether an applicant has in the last two years been diagnosed with, hospitalized for, or is currently receiving treatment for a psychiatric disorder. It doesn’t ask whether the disorder interferes with a person’s ability to safely drive, which is a component of another question about medical conditions in general. By asking separately about medical conditions and psychiatric conditions, the question implies that psychiatric illnesses are not medical, which is a funny distinction to make about a problem effectively treated by a wide array of drugs. And by including all psychiatric disorders in the question’s scope instead of conditions that might affect driving, it’s uselessly inclusive.
Have you ever felt grumpy from caffeine withdrawal? According to the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, that’s a diagnosable psychiatric problem. So are binge eating, sleepwalking and restless leg syndrome. Considering that a quarter of Americans will suffer a mental illness in a given year, the question assumes most drivers will lie.
Second, the question is illogical. A psychiatric condition that’s being treated will usually be less symptomatic than an untreated one. For greater relevance, the question would ask whether a driver has been diagnosed with but declined treatment for a disorder. Or better, it would ask if someone has a mental illness of which they’re unaware. While inquiring about that, Dateline Houston suggests the Department of Public Safety ask if an applicant texts while driving, tends to make terrible decisions, or has ever played Grand Theft Auto.
Third, the enforcement mechanism appears to rely on applicants to lie. Answering “yes” doesn’t disqualify a person, but it leads to more questions to determine whether someone’s psychiatric record should be examined by the Medical Advisory Board of the Department of State Health Services. That board comprises 13 doctors, none of whom are psychiatrists. Texas has about 18 million licensed drivers.
And yet, after all the questions about medical history, a shaded box reminds applicants, “False information could also lead to criminal charges with penalties of a fine up to $4,000.00 and/or jail.”