Friday, December 29, 2006

Featherlite drainage pipe break update: Sewage now bubbling up into shower

I suppose can't 100% for sure say it's because of the freshly busted drainage pipe from the Featherlite tract, but a moment ago the bathroom sink in my office began bubbling up with foul water and inexplicably burbling noisily, then spewing small amounts of brown water with little chunks up into the sink basin.

I don't really understand how all the drainage and sewer pipes are hooked up in this neighborhood, and I suppose it could be my own home's plumbing acting up, but it seems like some coincidence that this would start up now, just after a major drainage pipe was broken 30 feet from my house.

Oh, BTW, I got a photo of the flooded area at the end of 14th street. By the time I got batteries for the camera, the water had receded quite a bit, seeping into the ground at the end of 14th street. But you can still tell this is creating a big problem for my neighbors.

Literally I must end this post because sewage is backing up into the shower and Kathy needs me to help deal with it. Meanwhile the water's burbling noisily in my bathroom sink off my office even as I write these lines - I'm afraid to look in there yet to see what needs cleaning up.

Personally, I don't believe this is a coincidence. Here's a picture of the end of 14th street. It was much worse earlier today; this was taken after quite a bit of the water had already receded:

If a tree falls in East Austin and it causes the streets to flood, will anybody hear it?

According to an exasperated and apologetic City of Austin public works official who was just out here by my house, the new owners of the Featherlite tract shouldn't have taken down a huge Cottonwood tree near our property, and they should have known that before they started tearing everything up.

It turns out this was no unreasonable request by environmentalists, though for aesthetic reasons my wife had requested the tree be saved. The previous landowner actually told us they'd adjsted their plans to accomodate it. Then he sold the property and the new landowner started mowing down everything in sight.

Now we discover what City officials already knew - the tree's roots were wrapped inextricably around the drainage pipe that takes in all the water flowing downhill from the whole neighborhood at the end of E. 14th street, which dead ends into the Featherlite tract.

Now, after just a moderate rain, the end of 14th is flooded and backed up into my neighbor's yard. (The damn batteries are out in my camera or I'd have gotten pics.) The drainage pipe is broken, said the frustrated city worker, at this point probably filled in with dirt.

Dellionaire Tom Meredith recently sold the portion of the property between 14th and 16th streets to a partnership between Momark Development (Terry Mitchell) and Benchmark Development (Dave Mahn). They're developing 64 condos on the southern section of the lot where it narrows along Boggy Creek next to the train tracks.

Apparently Momark and Benchmark didn't know about, or care about, any agreement to preserve the tree, the trunk of which is currently laying about 100 feet behind my house beside its giant, upended root system. From a distance, two X's marking it for destruction resemble a smiley face.

More and more I think there will be big drainage problems with the Featherlite, as I've feared from day one. IMO, anyone buying residential property on the southern end of that tract should probably be required to purchase federal flood insurance. The whole neighborhood's drainage used to dissipate into the Featherlite tract or flow down into Boggy Creek. Turn much of it into impervious cover and that seems like a near-certain recipe for flooding.

I'll write more about this subject later as things develop.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


The weather's crappy in Austin and I really don't like the holiday season - mostly I just hunker down and get through it. But this picture from Veracruz cracked me up. I wish I was there now instead of here. Via Catemaco Noticias.

In case you were wondering, cerdos is spanish for "politicans."

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Abuelita's Christmas Carol

I'm still excited that a theater troupe took over the old Jehovah's Witnesses building in my neighborhood at Cedar Ave. and 12th, and notice they've got a holiday play coming up Dec. 14-23 that I plan to attend, "Abuelita's Christmas Carol." (As I've mentioned previously, you gotta support them if someone is going to launch a theater company three blocks from your house and start with Ionesco.)

It's also good to see the rest of play! Theatre's season filling out. They're having auditions there tonight for another show next spring, I Am Not Tartuffe, billed as a "French-bashing American rock opera" - I'll go see the play when they perform it, but probably pass on stopping in tonight to give a reading.

A Rat Done Bit My Sister Nell, and Whitey's on the Moon

So the United States has a long-time twelve-figure deficit, expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, escalating violence by drug cartels at our southern border, millions of kids have no healthcare, our schools suck, their dropouts fill the prisons, New Orleans isn't fixed yet, but the United States is going to spend the money to build a permanent station on the moon?

Does anybody else remember the Gil Scott Heron song referenced in the title? That's been running through my head ever since I first heard this ridiculous news.

Like John Timmer, I wonder what if they built the thing and nobody showed up?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Featherlite construction started

I missed a recent neighborhood meeting to get more details, but they've started tearing up the Featherlite tract behind my house in East Austin this week, making way for new streets, hopefully better drainage (the area floods after a big rain) and several dozen detached condo units with shared parking. This is the view from my back deck of the recently dug up field. I walk my dogs back in that area pretty regularly, so it's a bit of a downer they're digging it all up, but since I've lived here the field's been a dump for garbage, animal carcasses, and once even a murder victim, so I don't have a major beef. Sometimes change is good.

The southernmost area of the property cannot be developed because of drainage concerns, last I heard - I'm surprised that's not true of the part they're developing now along Boggy Creek. Sometimes after it rains big sinkholes show up out of nowhere, up to 3-4 feet deep. That can't be too good for a slab foundation. The section from 14th street to 16th will become condos according to the last information I received, while the northernmost section of the tract will be some type of commercial and lots of parking.

The $64,000 question (actually a lot bigger one than that for Dellionaire landowner Tom Meredith) is whether they can find commercial tenants who want to build next to what will soon become a commuter rail station, where the train tracks cross Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. Certainly the site appears more likely to develop after voters last year approved the commuter rail line that will stop right besides Meredith's property. (A cynic might note here that former Dell President Lee Walker chairs Capital Metro, the agency that proposed putting the rail stop there, but I'm sure it's just a coincidence, don't you think?) Several potential anchor tenants like H.E.B. and KLRU originally balked at building on the northern commercial end of the property.

I'm sure those who went to the neighborhood meeting got more detail -I'll try to find out a little more about what's going on and blog it soon. But I thought it was significant that after all this time - nearly two years after they originally announced they would start - construction has finally begun on the largest remaining piece of empty real estatein central east Austin.

UPDATE: A commenter who attended the meeting points to a website put up by the developer about the project, which has been labeled "Chestnut Commons."

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Texas vino options expanding: Dry Comal Creek Winery makes nice Central Texas options

Driving north from Boerne to New Braunfels on HWY 46, looking forward to an evening of German food and music but still with a little time to kill, Kathy and I stopped into a small Texas winery - the Dry Comal Creek winery - toward the end of the day just before closing time. We didn't intend to go there, but I was glad we did. We'd passed a non-descript sign that just said "Winery," heading onto a gravel road, and followed it down through the cow pastures until we spotted the telltale grape vines indicating we'd found the spot.

It was serendipitous we wound up there. Kathy and I had been in San Antonio earlier in the day at their monthly, last-Saturday Houston Street crafts festival. At a booth for the Poteet winery, I happened to pick up a brochure from the Texas Department of Agriculture identifying 95 separate Texas wineries primarily clusterd in four regions - in West Texas around Lubbock, in Northeast Texas from Grapevine north toward Wichita Falls, in Central Texas in the southern Hill Country (where we were), and in Southeast Texas from Bryan down to Orange near the Louisiana border. (They've actually got a great version of that brochure online, complete with links to the wineries' websites, where available. Here's another website specifically featuring Hill-Country area wineries.) When we saw the "Winery" sign we pulled out that brochure, identified which one it probably was, and decided to turn the car around.

Kathy and I chatted for quite a bit with elderly proprietor Franklin D. Houser, who started the winery in 1998. He grows Black Spanish grapes and another specialty varietal on site for blending, but like many Texas wineries buy much of their "juice" for traditional brands like Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and others from California. He said some Texas wine purists were disdainful of wines that weren't made of 100% Texas grapes, but that California had "more juice than they knew what to do with" and it was of high, consistent quality.

Houser said that importation of California grape juice was the Texas wine movement's dirty little secret, but that he saw nothing wrong with it. He just wanted to make the best wine possible, he said, whatever it took to do it. He suggested that Texas wineries claiming they didn't buy juice from brokers were probably fibbing - when a Texas heat wave kills your crop, you don't have a lot of choice if you want to stay in business. Houser said much of the skill involved in creating a good wine began after the grapes were harvested, anyway, and that since business was booming - he sold all the wine he could make - he tended to ignore his purist critics and focus on making good wine.

Astonishingly, Mr. Houser said that 90% of his wine sales were made at the winery site itself, which has a nice patio where folks can sit and taste the wares. However there are a number of Austin and other central Texas sites where you can purchase their wines. He said they sold wines to HEB stores, but only the ones that actually had their own in-house wine stewards.

When you start to sample them, there are some surprisingly good Texas wines out there. One of my favorites comes out of Lubbock: Llano Estacado Winery's "Signature Red," a nice blend that stacks up nicely alongside any red wine in its cost range, and many more expensive ones. But among Dry Comal Creek's nice array of blends and varietals, I think I found a new favorite Texas white to go with Llano's Signature Red: the Dry Comal Creek Vineyard's "Bone Dry" French Colombard, described in their brochure as "fruity, crisp, clean, smooth. Balanced on a razor's edge, incredibly delicious." That's a pretty accurate description - I thought this wine was really nice - as good a white wine as I've had for twice the money (the wines ran about $14 per bottle).

Dry Comal Creek also makes a nice Sauvignon Blanc that includes hints of citrus fruit, cherries, mango and kiwi. Even more interesting - the Fume Blanc, he said, was essentially the same wind aged for six months in Ameican oak casks. You could really taste the difference between that six months' aging and the effects of the oak on the wine's flavor. I liked them both, especially the Fume Blanc, but Kathy didn't prefer them as much as the "Bone Dry" and "Demi-Sweet" French Colombard.

We didn't try their red wines - Kathy prefers white so we focused on those. But Dry Comal Creek also offers some red wines including blends using "Black Spanish" grapes, described as "a long-neglected native grape expressed in a dry dark red, smooth, rich mellow style with character aroma and flavor not found in any other red wine."

The winery was a nice diversion on our day trip this weekend - we left the place with three bottles of the wines we most preferred, one of which we're about to have with dinner, and a couple of new wines to add to the list of regular buys. Next time you're near New Braunfels, stop in and visit them to taste their wares if you have a spare hour (or sit down on the patio and enjoy a bottle or two if you've got longer than that).

Friday, November 24, 2006


It's true, I am an autodidact: Several items in this quiz I knew because I learned them outside of school. Truth is I didn't pay much attention in high school at all - a little more in college, though I never finished. Wonder what questions I missed? I found this quiz via Cigars, Donuts and Coffee.

You paid attention during 91% of high school!

85-100% You must be an autodidact, because American high schools don't get scores that high! Good show, old chap!

Do you deserve your high school diploma?
Create a Quiz

UPDATE: Kathy got 97% right. She's obviously the brains in the family.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

It's Always Christmastime for Visa

The payments that we're making are the gift that keeps on taking, and leave us buried deeper every year.
- Austin Lounge Lizards

Just in time for the holidays Consumers Union has released a song and video by a bunch of talented Austinites aimed at convincing Congress to pass laws against usury. The Austin Lounge Lizards wrote and performed the catchy tune, "It's always Christmastime for Visa," and Austin's own Animation Farm did the graphics. My wife Kathy runs online promotions for Consumers Union and thought this song and video would be a good hook to help promote federal credit reform legislation that needs support. More than 25,000 people have already taken action, and you should to - go here to see the video and tell Congress you support restrictions on usurious credit card rates.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Jensen vs. DallasBlog: Should Thanksgiving be replaced with 'day of atonement'

Left-wing UT-Austin Prof. Robert Jensen called on Alternet for making Thanksgiving a national day of atonement, and on DallasBlog this was received as a big joke.

I'm not a tremendous fan of Jensen's; I agree with him sometimes, but I often think he take extremist vews just for show. On the other hand he tends to expand the terms of debate and usually doesn't hurt anything, and there's that whole First Amendment thing, after all, so I don't usually let it bother me.

What I don't like, though, is when provocations offer reactionaries opportunities for backlash that they use to slam a wide variety of folks who don't agree at all with Jensen or others on the extreme left. Just as important, I also think we should be respectful of history, should view it as a teacher, not a club with which to pound our enemies. That's probably why impulse overcame wisdom and I responded to DallasBlog in the comments (somewhat) defending Jensen. Here's what I said:
Read the excellent and profoundly disturbing history "Bury my heart at Wounded Knee" for a sad description of what we should atone for on Thanksgiving.

Indeed, one can view the Pilgrims as America's first illegal immigrants. Uninvited and unwanted, they entered in opposition to the residents' wishes and under the authority of no native law.

One thing I'll say for Jensen, I think most of us need more atonement, actually. One of the things I liked about Louis Farrakhan's Million Man March was that he billed it as a day of atonement, of introspection for black men, and that focus resonated and was embraced by a lot of folks, with positive results.

Pride goest before a fall, whether it's black pride, gay pride or perhaps especially, as with Thanksgiving, nationalist pride. We live in a great nation built on 400 years of slavery, genocidal extermination of its former residents, not to mention imperial military conquests that seized half the mainland territory from Mexico by force, plus a bloody Civil War that only ended after Gen. Sherman brought the phrase "total war" (read: routinizing mass war crimes against civilians) into the modern vocabulary.

We have much to be thankful for as a nation. But if our thanks aren't tinted with humility for the suffering, pain and loss which enabled our presently dominant position [in the world], such celebrations risk indulging in hubris, encouraging an unjustifiedly unexamined, rank nationalism that ill serves us, IMO.

So I don't know about a fast - I like my stuffing and pumpkin pie - but I like that somebody's reminding the public that Thanksgiving celebrates a history with very complex meanings, not just simplistic, nationalist ones. Best,
I don't agree with Jensen we need to "replace" Thanksgiving. I think it's fine to give thanks. I think giving real, earnest thanks implies the humility that Jensen wishes were more commonly expressed during the holidays. If we are truly thankful, it's because we know that we do not deserve grace but have been offered it anyway. It's because no one can repay those old debts, those sins cannot be erased, but they can be forgiven.

You can't wag your finger and lecture people into bevaving more humbly. All you can do, I think, especially for a teacher, is demonstrate such behavior yourself and hope your example inspires others.

UPDATE: More from Robbie at Urban Grounds.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Polemicist online in html

This is flattering ... and a little scary. ;)

The student group UT-Watch has now posted nearly all the issues online from a short-lived (1989-'92) alternative student magazine founded by me and Tom Philpott, Jr. at UT-Austin called Polemicist. The student-written zine focused entirely on investigative reporting (by some very green student-reporters cutting their chops, I should add) about the University of Texas and its environs.

We began publishing just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but for some reason the epigraph on the masthead from Karl Marx, "A journal must have polemic, if it is to struggle," wasn't always taken in the ironic sense it was intended. The real source of the magazine's name wasn't Karl Marx, though, it was actually a George Bernard Shaw quote that I'm sure Tom remembers but I've long since forgotten.

Polemicist was a free handout in central Austin paid for 100% from advertising that maxxed out at around 15,000 circulation. However, it was published before the Internet era, so that means the UT-Watch folks (I think primarily Austin Van Zandt) had to re-type those suckers to get them into html.

Thanks Austin and UT-Watch, that's an amazing compliment that you'd think these old stories were important enough to archive online, even though part of me is a little scared to look and see what in the world I might have written as a student 16-17 years ago - and about whom. God help me ... indeed, God help us all.

UPDATE: Funny to read my collegiate writing again. Among opinions I've backed off of, somewhat, in my more moderate middle age: Against school spirit, a three tiered attack against jingoism in the young.

Friday, November 17, 2006

That means there are 155 impostors out there ...

Lots of people ask if I'm related to Jim Henson, or Drew Henson the football player (no to both) and there's a Scott Henson, it turns out, who's one of the designers of X-box games (not him, either, to my knowledge). But I thought this was an interesting bit of trivia:
LogoThere are:
people with my name
in the U.S.A.

How many have your name?

Monday, November 13, 2006

Carts before horses: K-State whips UT

Okay, maybe I jinxed the Horns' football team speculating too soon about a possible national championship bid. No sooner had I authored that blog post than the Longhorns lost their star quarterback to injury and a tough road game to Kansas State, taking them out of national title contention.

Kathy and I went to see the movie Borat Saturday night, and when I came home during the third quarter I was surprised to find Texas and K-State tied 21-21. I was then stunned to watch the Wildcats score three times in what seemed like the next five minutes - Boom, Boom, Boom!

With Colt McCoy at the helm, the Longhorns might still have pulled it out, but the situation was too much to throw a true-freshman backup into with no preparation. I'm amazed the final score (45-42) was so close.

So no national title shot for the Horns this year. Damn it - I spoke WAAAY too soon.

I'll still be shocked if Texas doesn't win the Big XII and earn a spot in a BCS bowl game. And with all this young talent, if they can keep their stars from turning pro early, next year's team should be awesome.

Friday, November 10, 2006

UT's botched scheduling may cost Longhorns national title shot

I've watched all the top college football teams except Michigan play at least once, and I'm convinced the Texas Longhorns probably have the best one loss team in college football. Quarterback Colt McCoy is loads better than he was in Texas' loss to Ohio State, and a rematch of that game with a more veteran QB would make for a great storyline. I think Texas would win.

But as this writer points out, Louisville's loss probably won't be enough to get Texas into the national championship game because Florda ranks slightly higher than us in the BCS computer polls.

Who is responsible? I think it's whoever at the UT Athletic Department decided to schedule the University of North Texas and Sam Houston State to play one of America's hottest football properties this year.

There's a lot of football left to be played, and Florida (or UT, for that matter) may not win out. But Texas is already stuck with teams like Baylor and Rice weighing down the annual strength-of-schedule meter. Why do the Longhorns schedule Division II patsies in football that harm the team in the computer rankings?

Texas does the same thing in baseball and basketball, too, but it doesn't matter because at the end of the year a tournament decides everything. In football, style points count, as does every week's opponent.

In that light, scheduling two Division II schools in a year when Texas has a real chance to repeat for a national title was a disservice to the players and team who worked so hard to earn it.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Sunk in Lucre's Sordid Charms

I thought the old pictures on this site are just wonderful.

For instance, check out these playing cards:

City council approves red light camera scam

If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is, and that goes double for the system of cameras the City of Austin voted today to install to give tickets to red light runners.

Vendors will pay for the cameras to be installed, then take a percentage of the profits. So do you think those vendors (or the city, which anticipates a big revenue windfall) have any interest in actually reducing red light running? Not a chance - the more red lights are run, the more money they make. In other cities municipalities actually lowered the length of yellow light times in order to increase revenue.

Most studies on the subject not paid for by vendors find that the number of injury accidents stays about the same when red light cameras are installed, or sometimes increase. The state of Virginia banned municipal red light camera use because a statewide study showed they were sending more ambulances to auto accidents, not less, after the cameras were installed. Other states have followed suit.

People don't run red lights on purpose, they tend to do it by accident, and cameras won't help that.

Councilmember Mike Martinez, in particular, came off simultaneously arrogant and ignorant on the subject, declaring criticisms of the camera scheme by the ACLU central Texas chapter "not substantive," but refusing to debate the topic. Not only was he being an asshole, he was flat out wrong: ACLU presented the council with a plethora of legitimate studies and other documentation, while councilmembers (according to results from an ACLU open records request) received all their data from industry lobbyists. City staff hadn't even bothered to contact more neutral sources.

Martinez should be ashamed of himself. IMO he bared his ass and came off as though he didn't care what the facts were - he just wants the extra income. What invertebrate cowardice! If the city needs more money, show some balls and raise taxes - don't try to mulct citizens through the back door.

City Council claims that this is about "safety" are an obvious canard. The Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M says there would be a greater benefit in accident reduction - they estimate 40%, according to testimony at the hearing - simply by increasing yellow light times by one second. Another proven method is to add a visible counter to traffic signals at high-risk intersections that counts down the moments until the light changes - most red light running happens because drivers are guessing when the light will change, and the counter takes out all the guesswork, dramatically reducing accidents.

But the city isn't looking at increasing yellow light times. Why? Because it would decrease camera revenue.

This is nothing but a scam. More later on some of the legal aspects, but for now if you're interested check out past coverage of this issue from Grits for Breakfast when the matter was before the Texas Legislature.

UPDATE: See Statesman coverage and comments from the public.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Colt McCoy quickly growing into quarterback role

This Houston Chronicle article gets it right. Red-shirt freshman Colt McCoy looked GREAT in UT's comeback win against a jacked up Texas Tech football team in Lubbock last night. At 21 to zip in the first quarter things didn't look so hot. But according the Houston Chronicle:
When things were coming undone in those chaotic early moments, the coach pulled the quarterback aside.

"Come here," Mack Brown told Colt McCoy. "Listen, they've got to know that you think you can win this game. They're going to be looking in your eyes."

And when Texas started its comeback, I'll be damned if you sure couldn't see it in his eyes. The game reminded me a lot of watching Major Applewhite come into his own against Oklahoma. This kid Colt McCoy, who looks like he's about 15, had never taken a snap in a college game before the start of the season. But Texas had plenty of big offensive guns to make a comeback, and when he settled down he did a great job distributing the ball to all of his different weapons. Bien hecho! Very nicely done.

It's a shame Texas scheduled Ohio State so early before McCoy gained a little seasoning. If he played OSU the way he played Tech last night, it would have been a really different game.

That said, Tech exposed Texas' inability to get to the quarterback with four pass rushers, or often even five or six. I don't know what about Tech's blocking scheme baffled the 'Horns, but it didn't look like the same group - they were often just stifled at the line. Maybe Tech's O-line is just that good. Giving Tech's hotshot pass-crazed offense time to run their routes explains the Raiders jumping out to such a big early lead, plus Tech's own QB had an amazing night.

If Texas is lucky to have enough teams ahead of them in the BCS lose and backs into a title shot, they'll have to put more pressure on the passer to beat any of the likely contenders.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Yes, America does

Spin It asks if America owes the Dixie Chicks an apology? I say "Hell, yes!"

The documentary about the Chicks, titled Shut Up and Sing, opens this weekend in New York and Los Angeles. (Why the hell not Austin, BTW? Fans here would have lined up for tickets around the block!) Ironically NBC won't run ads for the movie. I don't know if that makes them bigger cowards or jerks - but it amounts to a ton of free publicity and a complete affirmation of the movie's, and Spin It's, point: America owes the Dixie Chicks an apology.

Ionesco staged five blocks from home

A new local Austin theater has turned the old Jehovah's Witnesses church building a few blocks from my home into a 96-seat playhouse! The Play Theatre Group has teamed up with local theater compnay the Coda Project, and also renting the facility out. They began their fall season with three Eugene Ionesco shorts. Nice!!

The theater's at 12th and Cedar Avenue, about a mile from the highway, due east from the capitol building. For the past 16 years I've lived just a few blocks away in the neighborhood right behind it.

I have to say, the transformation from church to theater is a big improvement as far as I'm concerned. We've already got lots of churches in the neighborhood, and I don't think the loss will cause the religiosity quotient to fall much.

The same couple of Jehovah's Witness ladies came by my house every year handing out literature, and they were always quite friendly. But let's face it. Would I rather have the building occupied by people who once a year send out door knockers to interrupt me while I'm watching football on the weekends to give me religious literature I don't want, or people staging Ionesco? Really there's no competition.

Last weekend I went with my friend Tracey to see the Sunday matinee while Kathy was out of town, but we could only stay for two of the three short plays. I should have written this up right after we saw them so I'd do a better job reviewing the performances; I've forgotten too many details.

The theater itself was cozy, well-designed and audience friendly, not a bad seat in the house. I thought they did a nice job with the performance space, though actors inexplicably used a trailer out back as a changing room - the church building is big enough that it seems like there should be enough space to change inside, but perhaps renovations aren't complete.

If you've never seen or read any of Ionesco's plays, you simply must attend this production to expose yourself to his wonderful absurdist humor. His genius and theatrical legacy are nothing short of a world treasure - a gift from a twisted mind that transformed modern humor as we know it, for the better, and the sillier.

That said, Coda's production was merely adequate - honestly not as finely performed as I might have hoped, but certainly good enough to make for an enjoyable Sunday afternoon. I laughed and enjoyed myself, but perhaps might have wished a bit more from the actors (the staging was sparse, so the acting is everything). None of them particularly wowed me, but neither did I find any of their performances disappointing or poor. It was their first weekend so maybe I should cut them a little slack. I'll probably even go back again to see the third play we missed. The show was well worth the $15 admission, but if you go on Thursday night it's pay what you can.

If you like theater and you like to laugh, I'd encourage you to check out the scene for yourself - the plays are funny and you'll get a chance to visit Austin's newest theater space.

So long, Jehovah's Witnesses ... Play Theatre Group, welcome to the neighborhood

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Friday, October 20, 2006

Decline in Mexican textile jobs changes face of maquiladoras

"NAFTA no longer provides Mexican textiles and apparel much benefit," said the Dallas federal reserve bank last month in this interesting essay.

Competition with China for the US textile market has slashed jobs in Mexico's maquiladora industry, reports the fed, but growth in other sectors partially compensates for the difference.

Competititon with China and other US trade agreements besides NAFTA deflated post-NAFTA growth in Mexican textile jobs, says the fed. Other economic sectors, though, have replaced many of those jobs, dramatically changing the face of the maquiladora industry in the last few years:

The strongest sector has been chemicals, up 67.8 percent since January 2003, followed by services at 45.1 percent, electronics at 25.4 percent, machinery at 21 percent, furniture at 17 percent and transportation at 14.9 percent. By contrast, textiles and apparel declined 15.6 percent over the same time span.

The maquiladora sectors’ varying fortunes have geographic implications. The industry is growing in Mexican border cities that cater to mainstream U.S. manufacturers. Since January 2003, for example, maquiladora employment is up 40.9 percent in Reynosa and 25.8 percent in Ciudad Juárez. Elsewhere, border cities’ maquiladora industries have been held back by various impediments, such as infrastructure difficiencies. Matamoros’ job gains were 2.8 percent. Employment fell by 30.8 percent in Piedras Negras and 13.6 percent in Ciudad Acuña.

Those are large job growth figures for Reynosa and Juarez on either end of the Texas-Mexico border, with maquiladora jobs declining in the central section along the Rio Grande.

I learned when Kathy and I were in Mexico this summer that many maquiladora workers arrive at the border and only work in the plants there long enough to earn enough money to pay coyotes to help them cross the river. So illegal immigration has fueled low-labor costs on the border, meaning the success of the maquiladora plants can simultaneously be blamed, in part, for the failure to control immigration at the border.

On Grits for Breakfast not long ago, I quoted a spokesman for the Texas Border Coalition arguing that "the border region can no longer compete with the Pacific Rim on cheap labor, its historic competitive advantage. The border's emerging advantage compared to Asia, he said, lies in "logistics," i.e., the ability to transform the area into a transportation hub."

These employment figures seem to dispute that. Cheap labor might not benefit Mexico's textile industry as much as it once did, but the Dallas feds' stats tell me the maquiladoras will still thrive on cheap Mexican labor, and on America's failed immigration policies, for a quite a while to come.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Has neoliberalism failed Mexico?

Economist Brad DeLong asks if neoliberalism has failed Mexico. (UPDATE: Marginal Revolution offered additional thoughts.) My view, half-assed neoliberalism has failed Mexico.

Having traveled in Mexico quite a bit before and after NAFTA, I can tell you NAFTA has definitely succeeded in creating a more prosperous middle class there, especially in the larger cities, and this in turn has actually boosted US exports to Mexico, where trade used to be mostly the other direction.

However, other NAFTA policies weren't such a great benefit, in part because they were incomplete and skewed toward American interests. For example:
  • Separate rules for maquiladoras left them unregulated and a source of significant labor exploitation that contributes to border instability.
  • US agriculture subsidies, particularly billions subsidizing corn and soy, have virtually depopulated hundreds of Mexican farming communities, forcing millions of young men either to move to the United States to find work, or for farmers to shift to marijuana or other illicit crops to survive.
  • Finally, but perhaps most importantly, NAFTA liberalized markets for (some) goods while failing to liberalize labor markets, which was a recipe for disaster. Markets don't respect national boundaries, so it behooves nations to create multinational structures to control them - that's especially true for the labor market.
So DeLong's incorrect, in my view, to abandon his faith in markets as a (partial) soution to Mexico's woes, though I'd argue that to be effective, neoliberal policies must be coupled with direct economic and infrastructure development assistance - essentially an industrial policy aimed at bolstering emerging industries the way we've done with high tech in the United States. That'd be better spent money than any fence. In the end, though, IMO the ultimate answers may rely on greater reliance on market solutions, or rather, solutions that respect market forces instead of ignoring the most important of them.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

'The people need good men': Why do we blog?

"The people need good men," said Homer, smiling.

In a chapter of her debut novel, Getting Mother's Body, devoted to a monologue by preacher Roosevelt Beede, Pulitzer-winning dramatist Suzan-Lori Parks offered the best summation I think I've ever read on the struggle between participating in public, political life while maintaining one's spiritual grounding.

Roosevelt's take: Most people can't do it.

He ponders the difficulties internally as he listens to his younger cousin Homer, a wealthier, more educated man with political aspirations, driving west on I-10 during the early '60s. Set in West Texas, the novel tells the story of the family traveling to Arizona to dig up "treasure" supposedly buried with one of their kin, and Roosevelt for a time finds himself riding with Homer in his convertible during their adventure.

This particular quote from Roosevelt Beede in Parks' wonderful book has been ringing in my head, now, for a couple of months:
"The people need good men," Homer says smiling at me. And I know then that he will make a good politician, not a preacher, cause he ain't been called, but a politician, one who ain't been called but, through the force of his own personality, calls others to him. That's largely the difference. A man of God is called by God. A man of the people calls the people. Some men are called by God to lead the people. But that's rare. A man of the people thinks the people are calling him but it's just his own voice, overly loud, shouting his own name and hearing it echo back to him through the open mouths of the people, mouths open in awe and wonder watching a man shout his own name loud. A man of God has his mouth shut until God opens it, forces it open sometimes. And sometimes forces it closed.
Politicians are an easy target, and it'd be simple to focus that quote's venom on the array of stuffed shirts and fools (not exclusive categories) running for Governor, for example, and use Parks' lens to parse their motives.

But as near-daily public writers, I think bloggers dance the same line every time our fingers strike a keyboard, especially those of us blogging on political or policy topics: Is what I'm doing for me, for my own ego gratification, or is it for some higher purpose? If the latter, is that higher purpose the pursuit of truth, and if not, will the truth be compromised? Every blogger answers such questions, consciously or not, each time they sit down to write. (Parks, BTW, advocates standing while writing - "dancing," actually. She says every writer should try it once before they die.)

That said, neither can others answer those questions for the blogger - not the most sympathetic fan nor the harshest critic. One's motives are one's own and frequently more complicated, even, than the writer understands.

For people who generate as much prose as I do on Grits, writing is essentially a compulsion, if we are to be honest. Though it's not an original sentiment, I tell young folks who ask me how to write professionally that they shouldn't if they have any choice. A wise person would never undertake the task unless the compulsion to write is simply so great they cannot not write - that's the only reason to endure the negative aspects of the hazard-filled, isolating life choice that is truth-telling in print.

Parks' prose challenges us to go further, to ask, what is that compulsion's source, and is it healthy and good for everyone or indulgent and narcissistic? Is it self-promoting, or morally and spiritually grounded? A meaningless dalliance or a calling?

As "grassroots media," blogs almost by definition style themselves as the "voice of the people." But don't even, perhaps especially, the most popular bloggers risk that the people's affirmation is really "just his own voice, overly loud, shouting his own name and hearing it echo back to him through the open mouths of the people, mouths open in awe and wonder watching a man shout his own name loud"?

Some days, that's true for all of us. But I'd like to think that, on our best days, bloggers are doing something more important and better than that - providing a reflection on the world instead of a reflection, merely, of our own self-involvement.

Down on the end of the long tail where Grits for Breakfast, Huevos Rancheros and most other blogs reside, certainly there's room for many motives - to co-opt a phrase from Mao: Let a thousand flowers bloom. In one sense there are no bad reasons for blogging, but I often feel there are many unexamined ones, sometimes my own included.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Helping immigrant kids go to college

See this 2-minute video about an educational forum held by the Texas Criminal Justice Coaltion's University Leadership Initative in Austin explaining to parents and high school graduates how, in Texas, children of undocumented immigrants could attend college and qualify for in-state tuition. I know most of the kids working with the University Leadership Initiative, and I'm really proud of the work they're doing.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Saints Alive! And Dead: Rafael Guizar Valencia

I grew up Protestant in the Deep South, Southern Baptist, specifically, so the world of Catholic sainthood always held for me an exotic allure. As a child, I thought of saints as figures from the distant past, mysterious, alien icons that made the Catholic church seem odd and formal compared to the country-fried religion of my youth.

So I was interested when we were in Veracruz to learn one of Mexico's own will soon join the ranks of the Catholic blessed. Everywhere in the state, it seemed, Kathy and I saw images of Rafael Guizar Valencia, the former bishop about to be elevated to sainthood on Sunday. Guizar will be canonized for his work as the sometimes-exiled Bishop of Veracruz in the face of anti-Catholic persecution after the Mexican Revolution.

Huge banners featuring his image adorned the cathedral in downtown Xalapa when we were there in August, and local travel agencies were booking package trips to Rome for the occasion.

Our Spanish wasn't good enough when we were in Mexico to understand everything we saw and heard about the good bishop, so I learned more from recent news coverage than we were able to discern when we were there. Here are a few excerpts about Guizar's life from a recent article in Catholic Online ("Mexican becomes first Catholic bishop born in Americas to be named saint," Oct. 11):
In an Oct. 15 papal ceremony at the Vatican, Blessed Rafael Guizar Valencia is scheduled to become the first bishop born in the Americas to be declared a saint.

As a priest during the anti-clerical era that marked the start of the 20th century in his native Mexico, he often disguised himself as a junk dealer to bring the sacraments to both sides fighting the Mexican Revolution which started in 1910.

After the revolution when anti-clerical measures were adopted by the new government, he lived in exile in Cuba, Colombia, Guatemala and the southern United States to escape persecution. He was ordained bishop of Veracruz in absentia in 1919 while living in Havana. ...

"He lived from 1878 to 1938, and actually survived the Mexican government's persecution of Catholicism – but only barely," Anderson said in a statement.

"One anecdote about him says he returned from a mission with bullet holes in his hat and clothing," said Anderson. ...

Father Maciel has cited his great uncle, who was the brother of Father Maciel's grandmother, as an inspiration for his own priestly vocation.

Writing about Blessed Rafael, Father Maciel, now 86, told of a time when his great uncle took him for a walk in Mexico City.

"He carried an accordion, which he played very well. I had no idea what he was going to use it for. We arrived at a well-trafficked spot. He took out his accordion and began playing popular songs. People gathered around him in a circle. When the number was substantial, he put aside his accordion and began preaching (about) Christ," said Father Maciel.

Blessed Rafael was born to a wealthy family in Cotija de la Paz in the Mexican state of Michoacan April 16, 1878. In 1894 he entered the seminary of the Diocese of Zamora and was ordained a priest for the diocese in 1901.

When the Mexican Revolution started, the Catholic Church was a target of rebel forces because it was considered one of the privileged institutions that dominated society under Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz. The then-Father Guizar became a target because of his defense of the church.

After the successful revolution, the new government ordered Father Guizar shot on sight and in 1915 he fled the country, entering the United States. He then moved to Guatemala, Colombia and Cuba.

Blessed Rafael returned to Mexico in 1920 as bishop of Veracruz and in 1923 joined the local Knights of Columbus council.

As church persecution continued, he founded a clandestine seminary.

"A bishop can do without a miter, a crosier and even a cathedral, but never without a seminary, because the future of his diocese depends on the seminary," he said.

Persecution of the church forced Blessed Rafael to flee Mexico again in 1927. He returned in 1929, after the church reached an accord with the government.

He became known as "the bishop of the poor" and died of natural causes June 6, 1938. Pope John Paul II beatified him Jan. 29, 1995.

More people might aspire to sainthood if you didn't have to be dead to enjoy the honor ... I'm just sayin'. ;)

UPDATE: Here's coverage of Guizar's canonization from the SA Express News and the Dallas News. More from a Veracruz-based expat blogger.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Bevo is dead

Long live Bevo.

UT's longest-living rendition of its mascot, Bevo XIII, has passed away. I guess the excitement of beating OU with a freshman quarterback was too much for him.

My father was president of UT's Silver Spurs, the student group that cares for the mascot, when he was in college, so Bevo has always been a big icon in my family.

My own personal favorite Bevo memory: I vividly recall sitting in the end zone of an OU game when I was a child, probably in the late '70s - not great seats, but right next to where the Spurs were maintaining the steer. A Sooner fan crept up and threw crimson paint on Bevo right in front of where my family was seated. The Silver Spurs in response beat the living crap out of the man until police ran from their posts to intervene. By the time they got there the Spurs had really worked the guy over, and the cops dragged the poor Okie away, bleeding and cursing.

You don't mess with Bevo.

Hook 'em.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Agua de Horchata ... in Austin!

Kathy just got back with a batch of breakfast tacos from El Chilito on Manor Road, and in addition to the tacos she brought us each home an agua de horchata, a rice-based drink we had frequently in Mexico that I described in this Huevos Rancheros post. Here's a recipe I found for the drink online.

El Chilito's version was a little sweeter and heavier on the vanilla than the agua de horchata we had in Mexico, but tasty, still.

It's really cool to me that so many dishes from the Mexican interior are becoming available now in Texas - one of the many benefits, IMO, to the current immigration boom.

Dixie Chicks movie out soon

I've been a Dixie Chicks fan since they were a local Austin band and Natalie Maines was still in high school up in Lubbock. For my tastes, I liked their album Home more than their most recent offering, Taking the Long Way - Home really let the girls' instrumental lights shine, and I thought Natalie Maines vocals were given greater range in the album's arrangements and song selection. But even their average performances stand out, to me, as among the best in country music.

The Chicks have a documentary coming out soon called Shut Up and Sing! that focuses on the controversy surrounding Maines' criticisms of President Bush. See the trailer here. They also recently performed and were interviewed on Bill Maher's Amazon Fishbowl; go here to watch that video.

I'm a little tired of that particular controversy, but I'll probably go see the movie. I'd listen to the Chicks sing the phone book. Plus I'm not a huge fan of Dubya nor the Iraq war myself. To me, the boycott of the Chicks by country music radio stations and death threats from irate fans was real low point for free speech in America - the Chicks really got an up-close-and-personal view of this nation's dark, nativist underbelly. But their celebrity also caused the incident to get overblown beyond its real importance - while their victimization got them a Rolling Stone cover and likely boosted album sales, Muslims targeted for sneak and peek searches under the Patriot Act, for example, or abuses at Guantanamo had a lot harder time getting on the national radar screen.

From a musical perspective, I'd like to see the Chicks go back to Maines' father Lloyd, himself a Texas music legend, to produce their next album. That collaboration on Home, for my money, really generated something special and fun.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Hoffbrau

Here's an excellent local blog piece on Austin's Hoffbrau restaurant. I sent it to my father, who fondly and frequently recalls courting my mother on dates at the Hoffbrau in the early '60s. Neither he nor I ever knew the chain was unaffiliated.

Writer Kramer Wetzel nails what's special about the place: Doing one thing and doing it well.

Come home to the armadillo ... in Veracruz

Here's an interesting article about a professional boxer I've seen on HBO before, Cruz Carbajal, who it turns out lives and trains in Veracruz, Mexico. That'll get me to take an extra interest next time I see him. The article's lede describes the prize fighter's odd training and diet regimen:
Former WBO bantamweight champion Cruz Carbajal (26-13, 22 KO’s) chases armadillos to help keep fit when he’s back home in Veracruz, Mexico. “It’s great exercise, I go out with a net and a flashlight, I catch them and bring them home,” said Carbajal from his training camp now located in San Diego, California. Unfortunately for the armadillos, Carbajal also claims that they’re good eatin’. “It’s good for you. I also hunt rabbits and do a lot of fishing. In fact most of my diet consists of different kinds of fish, shrimp and an occasional armadillo,” says Carbajal. It’s all part of Carbajal’s Spartan lifestyle that currently keeps him at a walking around weight of about 125 pounds.
He'd better not eat any American armadillos while he's training in San Diego - a lot of them have rabies in the US, I understand.

Poverty explains Carbajal's many losses, says the writer. "Carbajal is one of many fighters who made a habit of taking fights on short notice, in opponents’ backyards, and even when he’s not at his healthiest. Carbajal, like the rest of us, needs to make money and the cash was usually too good to resist when called in as a late minute, replacement fighter. 'Those losses came early in my career. I was fighting for the money. It made sense to take the better purses during those times,' he explained."

Maybe so, but he's a big-leaguer now. Even if he's still chasing armadillos for exercise.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Support new East side businesses

Two East Side businesses opened in Austin recently operated by friends of friends of mine. Both deserve your patronage.

Treasure City Thrift, 1720 E. 12th St.
  • "Treasure City Thrift is a collectively run non-profit thrift store designed to raise money for small grassroots community groups and projects that traditionally have difficulty finding funding." Stop by to shop, or donate useable furniture, books, clothing, toys, dishware tools, and other items in good condition.
East Side Pies, 1401-B Rosewood Ave. (across from the Carver Library)
  • ESP has been around a few months, but still counts as a new business in my book. Their pizza may well be the best in town. Try the Jamaican pizza which includes jerked chicken (I ask them to leave off the habañeros), or the Austinist recommended the Guiche (spinach, goat cheese, green chiles, sun-dried tomato and roasted garlic). Best of all: they deliver on the East Side!! Hardly anybody does - I live a mile from the state capitol and before ESP couldn't get a pizza delivered. Congrats especially to co-proprietor Noah Polk, who I knew a little when he was roommate to a friend of mine a few years back.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Texas 56, Sam Houston State 3

Sam Houston State!! From Huntsville! You've got to be kidding!

Whoever scheduled this debacle should be shot. Texas needn't lard its schedule with 2A teams just to get to 11 wins (SHU is 2A, right? I mean, there's not a 3A?). Games like Ohio State make or break a program; games like this make nothing but money, and I can't imagine the money is worth the jokes and eye-rolling from even the most commited fans. The TV stations didn't even want it - you had to watch the game on pay per view and I can't imagine who would.

UT Athletic Director DeLoss Dodds should be embarrassed. He's got a world-class thoroughbred in the UT football team. He shouldn't degrade it with races against the local neighborhood hack, the way the UT baseball team did in Coach Gus' final years.

I mean, my high school alma mater Robert E. Lee-Tyler would probably come down for a game, if you paid them enough. UT would win, but what would it prove?

Saturday, September 30, 2006

'Mexico is my Paris and my Rome'

This New York Times travelogue sounds like a great trip - the writer followed the trail of a 19th century diarist, whose memoirs inspired portions of Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose, from Veracruz to Michoacan.

That's a fun way to travel - following the footsteps of past writers. In Turkey once, Kathy and I spent a month traveling the western coast tracking the events in Herodotus' Histories. It was one of our best vacations ever, and I'll certainly now never forget my ancient Greek history as a result.

There's so much to see in Mexico, too - much more than most Americans realize. I love the line, "Mexico is my Paris and my Rome" - I couldn't agree more! And unlike the 19th century diarist, I've been to those two cities. I love them both, but I'll take Mexico.

Friday, September 29, 2006


is quite a dog. Via Crime and Federalism.

It's a girl!

My daughter gave birth to a baby girl last night (my goddaughter, actually, though we raised her from when she was twelve) - I'm going to see the child today for the first time!

Ouch! I turn 40 in a couple of months - too young to be a Grandpa, I thought. Funny how nobody asked me. Congratulations Mikel!

UPDATE: Her name is Tytionna Renee Durst and she weighed just over six pounds. Hopefully I'll have pictures soon.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Longview as Tortilla Junction

Times are changin' when a tortilla manufacturer in Longview, TX can't expand fast enough.

La Fama Foods, established in Longview in 1982, currently generates 144,000 corn tortillas every hour. Their proposed new facility would expand flour tortilla production from 70,000 pounds to 120,000 pounds per week. All told, La Fama uses 200,000 pounds of flour every week, so they want to build a silo to store it instead of wasting space and manpower with bags. Wow - that's a successful business, and a LOT of tortillas.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Galveston sunset

My friend Amina sent this picture from Galveston. The Texas Gulf coast doesn't really have what you'd call "beautiful" beaches, especially by the time you get as far north as Galveston, but it has its moments.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Austin lucky to have electric utility transfer

For at least a decade, large employers and downtown business interests have campaigned against Austin's "transfer" of profits from the city-owned electric utility to the city's "general fund," and apparently those interests are preparing to make another run.

The Statesman's Kate Alexander today tries to portray the City of Austin's "transfer" of profits from the electric utility, Austin Energy, as some nefarious plot to unfairly tax residents ("Is Austin's use of utility fees appropriate?," Sept. 24). While I've not always been a fan of the way the City runs the utility, the argument against transferring profits to the general fund is a red herring.

Bottom line, Austin finds itself in a unique position. First, it still owns its own electric utility and so is immune to the market vagaries that plague other Texas cities. Profits from TXU in Dallas go to investors - profits from Austin Energy go to property tax relief. Which is preferable?

More importantly, as the center of state government and with the University of Texas here, Austin finds itself with more non-taxable central city real estate than any other Texas city. (Tax abatements given to several large employers exacerbate the problem.) Much prime real estate that in other cities would be a source of tax revenue in Austin is off the tax rolls. That means that higher utility fees, especially in central business district, help make up for the complete lack of local taxes paid by state government to the city.

Some of the large high-tech manufacturers like AMD and Motorolla would be the biggest beneficiaries of eliminating the "transfer," while average taxpayers who'd have to make up the difference would be the losers.

Austin's lucky to own it's own electric utility and we should maximize the public benefit from this valuable resource. Reinvesting utility profits in the city isn't some scam - it's one of the most important benefits from the city owning its own electric utility in the first place.

Cities who get their electricity from private companies can only wish they had the luxury of deciding where profits from consumer utility payments will be spent.

UPDATE: Reporter Kate Alexander responds: "Just one clarification: the story focused on costs paid by the enterprise departments on top of the transfer."

Saturday, September 16, 2006

By the grace of God

Bumper sticker slogan seen this morning on side of 18-wheel truck:
"American by birth, Southerner by the grace of God." (w/ rebel flag)

Friday, September 15, 2006

Earliest Olmec writing discovered

While traveling in Veracruz in 2004 and this summer, Kathy and I learned a lot about the Olmecs, the ancient society which is essentially the mother culture for all of native Latin America - Olmec society originated in the jungles of what's today southern Veracruz state, and the giant heads they left behind have become iconic of their ancient, still-little-known influence.

The Olmec's art featured wonderful stylized scupltures - both tiny ones that often included fun, happy facial expressions, and also the dour giant heads for which they are most famous. (Some of the stone heads are supposedly from 1200 B.C. or even earlier.) The Olmecs have become Kathy's favorite artistic period during our various forays into learning about pre-Colombian art.

Now, apparently, Olmec writing has been discovered on a stone block found near the San Lorenzo site. Apparently much of the writing, perhaps unsurprisingly, was about corn. If authentic, the find would mean the Olmecs had a written language possibly as early as 900 B.C., hundreds of years earlier than previously thought: in other words, a written language had developed in Mexico about 3,000 years ago. Reported the Boston Globe (Sept. 15):
The inscriptions are carved in a rock called serpentine. The block is about 14 inches long, 8 inches wide, and 5 inches deep. The side with the writing is concave, leading the authors of the study to speculate that the block may have been written on, then sanded blank, many times.

The writing system appears to have died, because there are no signs of direct influence on other known writing systems. The oldest previously known text in the Americas dates to about 500 BC, and was used by a people known as the Zapotec, who also lived in what is now Mexico.

The Olmec arose on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico around 1200 BC, in what is now central Mexico, and they faded from history about 400 BC. The farming of maize played a vital role in building their civilization, and the scientists said that three of the 28 different symbols used on the stone appear to depict maize.

The Maya civilization overlapped chronologically with the Olmec and lived to their east, centered on the Yucatan peninsula. Mayan civilization began about 500 BC and went into decline in the eighth and ninth centuries AD. The Aztec lived in central Mexico like the Olmec, but far later, roughly from the 14th to 16th century AD.

Olmec is an Aztec word meaning "people from the rubber area." Rubber plants are common where the Olmec lived.

The two best museums to learn about the Olmecs in Mexico are in the Museum of Anthropology in Xalapa, the state capital of Veracruz, and also at the National Archaeological Museum in Mexico City which, on the Olmecs, has a good collection but perhaps less thorough than in Xalapa (the Mexico City museum focuses on several different pre-Colombian cultures, while the museum in Xalapa, one of my favorite Mexican cities, focuses on cultures in that region). I understand from our friend Judith that there's another excellent museum featuring the Olmecs in Villahermosa in Tabasco, but I have never been there.

We enjoyed studying about the Olmecs on our two vacations in Veracruz, and learned enough to know that this is a neat, important archaeological find.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Why doesn't Major League Baseball open a franchise in Mexico City?

Larry James offered a marvelous list of questions about immigration that I referenced on Grits for Breakfast. One of the most provocative : Why doesn't Major League Baseball open a franchise in Mexico City?

Why indeed? What a brilliant idea. I think it'd make a ton of money. Here are some reasons why:
  • Baseball has a long history in Mexico and a built-in natural fan base. The Mexican League has 16 teams, whose fan base could be mined and marketed to nationwide.
  • Mexico City could fill a big stadium. It has 20+ million people, as big as any US market, and as the first Mexican MLB team it would draw fans from nationwide.
  • Millions of Mexican immigrants and first-generation citizens of Mexican descent in the United States offer continent-wide subsidiary merchandising opportunities.
  • Baseball players would still cost millions of dollars, but labor costs for everything else from building or modifying a stadium to mopping the bathroom stalls would be cheaper in Mexico. That would improve margins every year.
There are probably other reasons for and against, but that strikes me as a workable idea. Now all I need is a couple hundred million dollars or so to get the plan rolling, and we're in business!

Lake Catemaco, tierra de los brujos

I never wrote up our trip to Lake Catemaco, as promised, but the Houston Chronicle has a nice feature in their travel section from September 10 about the area. We visited some of the places she mentions, but none of the brujos (witches/shamans), even though Kathy perhaps rightly suggested I could use a good "spiritual cleansing."

UPDATE: Here's an English-language blog from Lake Catemaco.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

How many miles home?

While driving in Mexico Kathy, Judith and I laughed that the mileage signs (in kilometers, actually) were wildly inconsistent, especially out in the hinterlands. You'd see a sign saying a town was 12 kilometers away, drive a mile or two, then see another sign saying it was 14.

In Texas, mileage signs are all measured from the steps of the county courthouse, so it's consistent heading into any county seat that the mileage is basically measured from the center of town.

Driving home from Houston this weekend, it was oddly comforting to know that when the sign said I was 29 miles from Austin, I knew exactly where I was and how long it would take me to get back home.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Enjoying Houston

Kathy and I had a nice 16th anniversary getaway in Houston this weekend. Kathy and I are lucky - it's been 16 years and I still love her, probably more than when we were kids. We've had a great life together so far.

In Houston, we stayed downtown in the theater district and visited two museum exhibits - a collection of pre-Colombian gold artifacts at the Museum of Fine Arts, and the final weekend of the Body Worlds exhibition in the Natural History Museum.

Body Worlds was jam packed - we'd reserved tickets for 9 a.m. this morning (Sunday), and it was utterly full well before we got there, even though the exhibit was open 24 hours per day for its final weekend. Folks who hadn't purchased tickets ahead of time didn't get in, and they really missed something unique. It was an amazing display of technological prowess - literally cross-sections of human beings, frequently displayed as art in sculptural poses.

Maybe it had been hyped too much (several people had told me about it, Kathy had talked it up, and I'd seen several of the images online), or maybe it was the massive crowd that inched by the exhibit cases at a pace that would make snails scoff, but I enjoyed the pre-Colombian art exhibit more, of the two. I felt like I needed to know more about medicine, anatomy, and the human body to really get all the benefit from the exhibit that was there to be had.

Still, it was pretty cool. As art, I especially enjoyed a piece of a man holding his own skin, pulled off as one piece. Another, labeled the "Wizard," depicted a skinned man holding his own innards in front of him with his muscles splayed out from his body like some bizarre Indian headdress. Most famously, a skinned horse and rider with their innards displayed, the rider tri-sected, holding the horse's brain out beside the animal's head.

I wish I'd been there on a day when there were less people, but I was glad to get to see an exhibit that's become a worldwide phenomenon. When we were in Mexico City, another version of the exhibit was going on.

By comparison, the Museum of Fine Arts yesterday was less crowded and a much more pleasant museum experience. We viewed an exhibit of pre-Colombian gold jewelry that was a fascinating complement to some of what we viewed in Mexico. Most pre-Colombian gold in Mexico was melted by Cortes and his thugs into gold bars; the gold in the exhibit was almost all from South America, mostly Colombia and Peru.

Especially interesting was seeing pieces of jewelry we'd only seen in stone images in Mexico - especially elaborate nose rings so large we thought they were chinpieces to the massive headdresses depicted. No. Those were nose rings that were sometimes plates of gold 8 inches wide and 6 inches high, elaborately crafted, often covering the wearers whole mouth. Similarly, large earrings very similar to those depicted on the gigantic Olmec heads from southern Veracruz were on display, filling in a lot of the details you miss looking at a 2,500 year old carved rock.

Last night we ate at a Cuban restaurant on Bissonnett called Cafe Piquet that I highly recommend, both for food quality and general value. They served us a really wonderful dinner - my roasted pork came with wild rice, black beans and garlicky yucca. Kathy had, but she had a dish called Vaca Frita, which was shredded beef with garlic and onion, and plantains instead of the yucca. Then we both enjoyed a nice flan and espresso afterward, before going to see the movie "The Illusionist."

Houston was oddly a nice break from Austin - a real, big city with big-city acoutrements like museums and good ethnic food, despite the heat and humidity. We had a good time.

Friday, September 01, 2006

God is no hero

I'm a prolific writer, but never much of a poet. Still, I wrote these while on vacation (Montepio is in southern Veracruz on the coast), and thought they were decent enough to post on this blog:

Montepio, Mexico
God is no hero.
God is no villain.
God is. That's enough, no?

Must we be saved?
From what?
In time, death will take us all.

Some people think God is only God if we may have "victory over death"
But I think God is God because we are delivered unto death,
And because life continues regardless.

Who gives a fuck about saving the world?

Montepio, Mexico
Who gives a fuck about saving the world?
The world doesn't give a fuck about us.
The world isn't here for us, it's just here.
That's how we should be, too.

There is beauty in the world, but it's not for us.
It's there for beauty's sake alone.
Enjoy it if you want to, or ignore it, it doesn't matter.
Beauty exists but it doesn't care what we think about it.

There is goodness in the world, and evil, too,
But only if you think too hard,
Only if you think too much about yourself.
Think less, just be, and evil threatens no more than the setting sun, while goodness becomes a shooting star, at most of fleeting interst.

God exists and is there for us
In the pulse of the ocean tide, in music's rhythm, in your heartbeat and your breath.
God exists if you ignore good and evil, ignore distractions like beauty and ugliness, pleasure and pain.
God exists for those who love life and death equally, for whom winter and spring are valued in equal measure.

God exists, and once you know that, who gives a fuck about saving the world?

Friday, August 25, 2006

Book of Hours - the Hour to Ask

I haven't been blogging much, and much about work is on hold.

While on holiday, I discovered the wonderful work of painter Alfredo Castañeda, who in 2005 published his first book of poetry, each poem matched to beautiful paintings. Check out his Libro de Horas/Book of Hours, a book of 52 poems and paintings published in 2005, both in Spanish and in an artfully crafted English translation by Margaret Sayers Peden. I couldn't recommend it more highly - I just loved it.

The poems are as wonderful as the art, all graceful, thoughtful, and short - never more than a page, typically featuring the artist himself, most often in a tophat and ZZ Top style beard. Each painting illustrates the accompanying poem in humorous, often surrealistic ways. (I suppose that's what the academics call "multidisciplinary.")

Opening it again after a not-so-great week I see the text of the first poem in the book, the "Hour To Ask," the larger illustration from which the cover art is taken. In full, it says:

And how do we find a way to get in?
we asked him.
Then he came up to us and, smiling,
pointed first to our hands
and then to our hearts.

How's that for a kick in the pants telling me to start writing? I really loved Castañeda's poetry, plus his obvious masterful artistry on the canvas, even the book's layout, paper choices, everything about his "Book of Hours." It's a delightful artistic work from seasoned artist and a wise man. I couldn't recommend it more highly.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

History in the making

(Mexico, D.F.) For reasons I cannot explain, most of my trips to Mexico seem to run into highly politicized situations that are making national headlines, like hearing PRD presidential candidate Lopez Obrador's speech in Mexico City's zocalo our first day back this week. (See John Ross' account of the speech and a good analysis of what's going on with the elections.)

It hasn't always been that way. My first trip to Mexico on my own was at age 17 - some friends and I told our parents we were going hunting on a friend's deer lease around Llano and instead headed to the red light district in Nuevo Laredo for what used to be, for Texas men my age and older, a traditional, debaucherous rite of passage.

For the next few years norteño border towns were my main experience with Mexico until 1994, when Kathy and I took our first extended trip into the Mexican interior. Traveling on our way to the Yucatán, we found ourself in Chiapas on Columbus day (or Dia de la Raza, to most Mexicans) when 40,000 Indians, most of them speakers of native tongues like Tzeltal and Tzotzil with no more Spanish than I had, descended on the city of San Cristobal de las Casas to protest in support of the Zapatista armed resistance movement in that state. At the time I did a fair bit of freelance journalism, so I hired a translator to speak to folks and wrote a story on a rented manual typewriter that was faxed back to the Austin Chronicle and ran as a cover story.

A couple of years ago when Kathy and I were again traveling in southern Mexico, this time in Oaxaca, more or less the consummate tourist town outside of beach citadels like Cancún or Acapulco, we witnessed the beginning of a bitter teachers' strike that's still going on today. Hundreds of tents filled the downtown streets with teachers and their families demanding cost of living increases to match the damage done by the then-declining peso, a scene much like we're seeing in the streets of Mexico City today as part of protests staged by Lopez Obrador's supporters. The strike in Oaxaca is one of the most intense labor disputes this country has seen in many years. Since we've been in Mexico this time, the husband of one of the main teacher organizers was gunned down by thugs allegedly associated with the PRI, the political party that ruled Mexico for 70 years after the Mexican Revolution and still controls state government in Oaxaca.

On this visit, all of Mexico seems to be blowing up. As the LA Weekly described it,

Mexico is now in a state of all-out political instability, and not just in the capital, where López Obrador supporters have taken over the Zócalo as well as Paseo de la Reforma, a major avenue. The dispute had been notably peaceful until Monday, when federal police battered activists and legislators who attempted to set up an encampment near the Congress’ lower House of Deputies.

To the south, in Oaxaca, a protracted and bloody labor dispute between the teachers union and the state government is worsening. To the north, there’s been little progress made in the spate of kidnappings and murders of women in Ciudad Juárez. And in cities across the country, harrowing drug trade–related executions remain gory staples of the daily news digest.

Rough stuff, and a sharp contrast to my soft, cushy tourist experiences described in the last few HR posts. So I thought I'd offer a few extranjero observations on what little politics I've seen and understood (given my limited español turistico) since we've been here.

When we got back to Mexico City from Veracruz for the final week of our trip, the first evening we went down to the zocalo at the town center to find a sizable crowd amidst the tent-city of protesters listening to an array of speakers culminating with Lopez Obrador himself, known to his supporters by his initials AMLO and portrayed in countless political posters and cartoons as a cheerful buck-toothed presidential hope for the future. Obrador was mayor of Mexico City before running for president, and by all accounts and my own observations the city improved mightily for his efforts. Thus a lot of his base is right here in the world's largest city, and it shows from the array of protesters in the tent cities, bumper stickers on cars, taxis and street vendor stands and even signs in home windows declaring Voto por Voto - e.g., demanding a vote by vote nationwide recount. The national election commission is only doing a partial recount, and I've not spoken to anybody who believes the current ruling party, PAN, won't be declared the ultimate winner by that body.

The whole national election mess will remind every American of Florida in 2000, with a key difference: the three main national parties - the leftist PRD, the right wing PAN, and the former ruling PRI - split the vote with the top two voter-getters earning a little more than one third apiece and the PRI lagging at third. All three parties earned a respectable minority in Congress with no clear majority. Mexico is a three-party state.

PAN's presidential candidate supposedly received .58 percentage points more than the PRD on election day, said the initial results. The PRD, though, immediately began complaining of widespread election fraude, and it seems highly likely that occurred in some cases. To quote John Ross, who is one of the best English-speaking reporters on Mexican politics:
Inside the counting rooms, Mexico's 2006 presidential election, exalted by the U.S. State Department as a paragon of democracy, was not a pretty sight. Hundreds of ballot boxes warehoused under military guard had been broken into, their seals ripped open, and the contents contaminated. Sometimes the ballots were scattered on the floor of the warehouse, sometimes there were no ballots inside the boxes to verify what the tally sheets ("actas") affirmed. When AMLO's representatives grew apoplectic at the wholesale fraud, the judges ordered the military to expel them from the recount.

Jalisco, a PAN citadel, was the first state to report results on election night--there was a governor's race on the ballot as well as the presidential vote and the PAN seemed to have kicked ass, building up a 70 percent landslide. But the results seemed so out of whack with national numbers (Calderon was awarded a highly dubious .58 per cent victory by the IFE) that the judges ordered more than 1700 casillas in the state reopened.

The new count did not sustain Calderon's Election Day claims. In 15 ballot boxes in District 3 (Tepatitlan), the PANista had been awarded 2700 votes according to the tally sheets that could not be found in the ballot boxes. Lopez Obrador, meanwhile, picked up 250 votes in the district, about 12 per casilla--Calderon's disputed 243,000 "victory" breaks down to about 1.8 per casilla.
If Ross' estimates are close to accurate, Obrador probably did win the election. In response, AMLO has urged his followers to continue their protest encampments potentially for "years" if his PAN opponent is declared president, as nearly everyone believes he will be. At the speech we heard (about which I learned more from translating the newspaper with a dictionary the next morning than I understood at the time), Obrador told his followers to continue peaceful civil resistance, which so far has included shutting down the stock exchange and taking over highway toll booths to allow travelers to pass through without paying. On Monday police tear gassed protesters who tried to set up another encampment outside of the Mexican Congress.

At one point during Obrador's speech, somebody set of a skyrocket that burst with a loud pop, and for a moment I thought for sure we were witnessing an assassination attempt. An elderly lady next to me looked up with a nervous grin, crossing herself, and said "Por Dios," before wiping her forehead with relief- I suspect she thought the same thing. It seemed an ill-timed moment for such a display.

Obviously, I have no way to know whether vote fraud took place or how much, but you don't need to be an expert in Mexican politics to see that this is a very divided country. PAN is strong in the northern states, representing elements that in the US would be considered the religious right as well as the interests of American capital. PRD's base is the poorest of the poor, especially in southern Mexico and Mexico City. Meanwhile the PRI represent many old-guard unions and other middle class interests, in addition to remnants of the ruling coalition that dominated the country for most of the last century. Bottom line, there's little that unites them. While the PRI would love to oust the PAN candidate, their interests hardly coincide with Lopez Obrador, whose populist agenda would overturn many of the PRI's most prized neoliberal reforms, most prominently participation in NAFTA.

Still, I'm not sure long-term civil disobedience will position the PRD well, especially if it continues, as per Obrador's urging, for years to come as it has now with teachers in Oaxaca. However you look at it, even if the PRD actually won a plurality, 2/3 of the country didn't want whichever candidate ultimately assumes the presidency. Civil disobedience might be a better option if the majority supported their candidate, but the longer it goes on, especially after a president has been formally declared, I would fear (if I were a PRD strategist) that recalcitrance would damage the party irrevocably in the long term. (UPDATE: John Ross says some of AMLO's middle class supporters are already criticizing him for worsening Mexico City's traffic.)

That said, claims that protests are harming the economy are laughable. Mexico City's center is as vibrant as ever. Our hotel was full when we arrived and we had to take a more expensive room. The streets covered with tents and tarps are filled with shoppers all day and evening, and the air smells cleaner for the lessened traffic. (From what I've seen, traffic in the center has been hindered more by significant roadwork being done near the center than by the two roads blocked off by demonstrations.) But shops and restaurants are bustling, the street stalls are doing land-office business, and nothing I've witnessed indicates commerce has been harmed in the least. Indeed, it's probably been helped by the influx of protesters camping in center of town.

High drama, from any perspective. God knows how it will turn out. But in any event, it's odd how, whenever Kathy and I come to Mexico we seem to walk into the middle of a political clusterfuck. Or, to look at it another way, history in the making.