Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Comedy Stylings of the 83rd Texas Legislature

Let’s go round up some bills, fellers…

The Texas Legislature is a venerable institution; a place of studied consideration of public policy. It is also peopled solely by Texans, who are occasionally seized by that unique Texas character that is a mix of independent spirit, fundamentalist zeal, and oddly polite velociraptor.

Artcar Parade -
She’s got that Texas Spirit. Or a wedgie. It’s hard to tell.

This inevitably leads to some eyebrow-raising legislation packed in among the loftier bills. Many are garden variety last gasps of mid-century American cultural hegemony, but once in a while they are some that are just particularly odd. Here are a few of my favorites from the new session so far, by topic. Some are bizarre, some are just overtly hostile, and some are just…Texas.

Mission Espada
Religion[i], like everything else, is big in Texas. Big megachurches, big influence, big hair on pastors’ wives. Unfortunately, sometimes it also means big-otry . This year actually has not seen a lot of truly crazy bills in the religion side of things, but the session isn’t over yet. Here’s what has been filed so far:

HB51 – allows the Ten Commandments to be displayed prominent in classrooms, regardless of whether the class has any relation to non-religious aspects of the Commandments[ii]. No such protections are offered for other religious dictates (5 pillars of Islam, etc.)

HB308 – allows people to use “traditional winter celebration” greetings in schools (Read: Christmas, and , begrudgingly, Hannukah). It does not include Kwanzaa, solstice, Festivus, etc[iii].  The bill also protects the right to erect Christmas displays[iv]. The greatest bit about this bill is its continuance of the ongoing theme of “legislation whose aim it is to cure perceived ills that don’t actually exist”.  Oddly “happy holidays”, the fury touchstone of the far right, is one of the protected greetings.

HB 285 – This bill prohibits universities from discriminating against professors who want to research and teach intelligent design. This essentially means that universities cannot stop a professor from teaching intelligent design in a biology class. It also potentially means that in hiring professors, a school may not be able to discriminate against candidates for a position even if they are teaching something completely against the accepted curriculum of that area of study. This is akin to hiring a nutrition teacher who advocates anorexia.

HB 288 – In unrelated contrast to its other xenophobic elements, HB 288 also contains a provision that emphasizes the separation of church and state…..but only in terms that the church should be completely autonomous from the state.

Nowhere else does the Texas spirit of independence shine through quite so brightly[v] as their fondness for the firearm. Every time someone in Washington even says “gun” in passing conversation, there is a run on Texas guns and ammunition from crazed citizens SURE that the very next day black helicopters will swoop in to take their guns and leave them unable to defend themselves against robbers, rapists, and/or Joe Biden.  

In the face of school shootings and a serious national discourse on gun control, the general aim of Texas legislatiure is….well, completely in the opposite direction. Texas, once again, is doubling down on guns[vi].

HB 706/SB 182 – Got a firearm and a concealed carry permit, but having to face the heartbreak of leaving it behind when you go to school? No more! In an era of school shootings there is no better solution than to add a general fear that anyone you run into may be carrying a firearm. This is perfectly logical, because teenagers/young adults never act impulsively or irrationally in a way that would be dangerous to combine with firearms. Every frat party I ever went to was merely a sober salon in which we discussed 14th century French literature.

HB 700 –  Ok, fine, HB706, you think you’re head crazypants for bringing more guns to schools? Well meh, you’ve got nothing on me. I’m HB700, and I want to make it legal to carry your gun in the open if you have concealed carry permit. That’s right, we’re going back to the frontier days. What’s the point of packing that new penis compensator .44 Magnum if you can’t show it off to the world? Bet that barista in Starbucks won’t be so uppity now when I say Large instead of Venti. I’m getting downright gunslinger up in here.

HB 553 – Continuing the theme of open defiance to perceived federal  government overreach, this “second amendment preservation act” effectively says any federal gun control is a violation of the second amendment and won’t be accepted.  Any.  Not only that, it adds punishments for peace officers who carry out such laws in their role of protecting the public. One step closer to completely free access to guns unfettered by government. I hear this has worked out fantastically well in Somalia.

Goddam’ Furr-iners
Texas shares two international borders[vii], and employs seemingly half of Mexico and Guatemala. However, even given this close proximity and familiarity, there is a strong and abiding fear of anything not originating in ‘Murica. Mostly it seems based on the assumptions that illegal immigrants will come steal the jobs that we’re already illicitly paying them to do.

A few of the bills are just minor shots across the federal bow. HB 180 removes completion of degree program as a resident status criteria in response to the feared Obama DREAM act and decision not to deport young people. HB 288 requires no application of foreign international law in courts that already do not apply foreign international law. HB 359 is essentially a copy of Arizona’s “Show Me Your Papers” fascist marching orders legislation.

The one that takes the cake for its nod to the tinfoil hat crowd is HB 181, which prohibits governments from making day labor centers to house illegal aliens for work. Again carrying on the proud tradition of taking a symbolic and vitriolic stand against imaginary things. I am motivated by this example to personally propose HB32 next session, a bill I will entitle the “Prevent Victoria’s Secret Models from Kidnapping Me to be Their Love Slave Act”.  

ArtCar Parade - Eagle
The Rest of the Crazy
The remaining bills don’t fit nicely into one category other than the general catch-all of Crazy. They are presented in order of crazy from “mildly deranged” to “I weep for humanity”.

HB 360 is a mostly unfunny bill that indicates schools won’t get funding if they don’t allow student organizations to discriminate based on race, gender and sexual orientation.  Because schools were just getting downright welcoming with their emphasis on “inclusion” and “diversity” and …“basic human dignity”.  

HB 773 requires students to pledge allegiance to the US flag and to the Texas flag in charter schools as well as public schools. This act is not in itself crazy, as it’s just adding the charter schools. What is odd is that this is already mandatory in public schools. Before I came to Texas, I have never lived in a state that required pledging allegiance, let alone to a state flag. Take THAT, Supremacy Clause[viii].  

HB 778 – Requires A&M and UT to play an annual football game. Not recommends, not suggests they do so out of tradition, but REQUIRES. If they refuse for any reason, they would lose the ability to give football scholarships at all to any students. Texas football is serious business, and we will have our traditional A&M and UT game even if it has to be at gunpoint. Luckily, there are at least two bills that would allow us to carry firearms on campuses, so this won’t be a problem.   

HB337 - The absolute best bill of the bunch, however is this heavy-handed bill referring to the licensure of adult-oriented businesses and display of said licensing. The hilarity comes in its inclusion of exotic dancers in its requirements. Strippers must not only be licensed by the state, which brings up the inevitable jokes about license testing procedures, but they must also display their license. At all times. ON THEIR PERSON. The conversations that will ensue about how the logistics work out (what am I supposed to attach it to?), and potential liability (client paper cuts during lap dances?) will make for the best hearings ever.


[i] Which tends to translate solely to Christianity in Texas talk, despite growing diversity in many areas.  
[ii] i.e. comparative religion, history, etc.
[iii] One might argue that Saturnalia, Solstice, etc are a good deal more “traditional” than Hannukah or Christmas….
[iv] Though it does require they be “balanced” by having another display (not necessarily of equal prominence  reflecting another religion (read: Judaism) or secular scene.
[v] This term is being used, of course, in the sense of a metaphor for prominence, not in the context of bright in which it refers to intelligence. I cannot emphasize this enough.
[vi] Which gives a whole new meaning to Texas Hold ‘em.
[vii] According to Texans, anyway. Those borders are Mexico and the US.
[viii] In Texas history, the Supremacy Clause is depicted as Santa’s more successful brother. i.e., a mythical thing.  

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Return of the Wrens

Carolina Wren

Our cramped little suburban/urban lot doesn't allow space for a great deal of wildlife, even though we're very close to some large parks/open spaces. However, one of our persistent visitors are a small family of Carolina Wrens. Carolina Wrens are small, excitable little birds who often hop around with the tails held stiffly up, making them resemble nothing so much as an animated exclamation point. This is appropriate given their character.

Wren defying Gravity

Carolina WrenCarolina Wren

The wrens are also singular for the sheer volume of their call. Wrens have to have about the best Bird-to-noise ratio I know of; Tiny little bird, huge pipes. This fact is appreciated much more when they are not exercising their vocal stylings at 4 in the morning. Which is pretty much when they start, and the continue through most of the morning. Right outside our the french doors in our bedroom. The quality of mercy may not be strained, but the quality of restraint is lucky we do not own firearms.

Carolina Wren
You might as well get up, I can do this all morning. 

Wrens are cavity nesters, so it should not have been a surprise when we found that one enterprising wren mother had built her nest in (literally, excavated into the dirt and roots) of one of our hanging baskets. The engineering on this thing was intense. She excavated a large cavern in the basket, and then constructed a woven nest in the cavern, in situ.  When the plant died and she moved on, I saved the nest, which still had one unhatched egg (a dud).

Wren NestWren NestWren nest

This week we have heard a couple males whaling away at their song, so it's probably about that time again. So, having a spare hour, I built a wooden nesting box to hopefully spare my plants. The boxes are fairly easy to build, so we'll see how it goes. As excruciating as their repetitive shrill song is at 4 in the morning, it is nice to have a small piece of nature to remind us w're not in a completely sterile environment.This is the rough mock will be stained or painted, and the front door will have a hinge or pivot nails (hence the gap at the top, also for ventilation). The hole still needs to be rounded out a little, but for an hour in the garage, I was pretty happy with it.

2013-01-27 16.49.502013-01-27 16.50.05

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Christmakkuh 2012

One of the most iconic moments in the original Star Wars movie was the moment the Millennium Falcon jumps into Hyperspace, and the view from the cockpit is of stars streaking by in unbroken lines. That’s exactly how Christmas felt this year; one continuous blur. Our Christmases are always a bit of a rush as we drive the width and breadth of NY state to visit family and relatives, but an ill timed project deadline and last minute work crises left me trying desperately to balance work  and family time. In this circumstance, it was akin to trying to juggle Buicks. I was so busy, I purposefully didn’t bring my camera, relying instead on my meager smartphone[i] (so, sorry for the picture quality here.)

Christmas in Manhattan (Ok, I cheated with this pic which is from a real camera in 2009)

We flew into NYC to see my sister and her husband. I love Manhattan at Christmastime. No better place in the world. We only had a day and a half there, but we crammed it fairly full. We had a fantastic meal at the Fig and Olive the first evening, and went out for drinks in the Meat Packing District, which is a lot nicer than it sounds. We walked under the High Line, though sadly we didn’t have time to check it out. One of the things I love about NYC is that it proudly wears the layers of its history[ii].

1Old Street, Meat Packing

The High
One drink makes you smaller, Old Street - Meat Packing District, the High Line[iii]

The next day we went on a grand tour, with an extended sojourn through Central Park. On the way we passed through neighborhoods in a variety of Christmas décor.

SignOn the Move
, Christmas Décor, Somewhat Creepy Sign[iv]On the Move through the upper East Side

Central Park is such a wonderful nexus between things I enjoy…urban planning, public spaces, natural areas, wildlife, history, etc. It never fails to amaze me that such a dense city has such a large and naturalistic feature at its core. We entered through the Engineer’s Gate and walked a bit around the Reservoir before heading South through the Ramble toward the southern end of the park. No matter how many times I walk through the area, the simple genius of Olmstead and Vaux’s vision is still somewhat inspiring, especially given the time in which it was developed…long before we had invented the smothering barrage of planner jargon to apply to the open space and walkability concepts it embraces.  The King Jagiello statue has a great history behind it, but out of context it is possibly the most overstatedly badass depiction of Poland I have ever seen. There really should be an exclamation point after the “Poland” carved on its pedestal.  For one of the most urban areas in the world, there is a surprising amount of non-domestic wildlife in Central Park. I stopped a birder briefly and asked him what he’d seen, and a lot of the species he named were things I would never expect to see anywhere near human civilization[v]. I tried to maintain my air of nonchalant NY cool while internally counting species.

PondBridge and
Reservoir panoramic, POLAND!, Belvedere castle, Bridge and Archway, Lake Vista

The Bethesda Terrace is one of my favorite places in the Park. It speaks to a different time in its ornate grandeur, but also to the level of concerted effort that has been expended in recent decades to renovate the Park back to its former grandeur. The delicate tiles of the Arcade ceiling gleam like they were just installed.

Bethesda Terrace
Bethesda Terrace
Bethesda Terrace, Bethesda Terrace and Fountain, Concert in the Arcade, Park Musician

The tourist quotient increases exponentially as we got to the Mall, but it’s still a grand thing to saunter down. My wife, the geologist, stopped to admire the exposed bedrock along the way. Personally, it just all looked like pieces of schist to me[vi].  

Skating with
The Mall, Skating with Skyline, Festive carriage, Festive carriage.

The normal horse drawn carriages explode in holiday décor this time of year, each one its own unique little mobile piece of flair. We meandered down through the City and then got some ice skating in on Citi Pond, amongst the Christmas shops under the shadow of the NY Public Library building. You really couldn’t cram much more Christmas into this scene[vii].  I even managed to stay mainly upright on the ice.

City Christmas Shops at Citi
Christmas Shops at Citi

Ice Skating at Citi
Radio City Musical Hall, Christmas Shops at Citi Pond, Shops at Citi Pond, Ice Skating at Citi Pond

After a brief stopover at the venerably NY Public Library main branch, we dashed back home to change for dinner and a show. We had booked last minute, third row (!) tickets to Nice Work if You Can Get It[viii]. It was a decent show, but our thrill of being in the third row was somewhat lessened by getting the understudy for Matthew Broderick instead of Mr. Broderick himself. The Gershwin tunes were still pretty fitting for an evening in NY, but the potential to be inadvertently spat upon by a celebrity was to elude us that evening.

Chrysler Building from
NY Public LibraryTimes Square
Patience the Lion, Chrysler Building from the NY Public Library, Times Square

The next morning we leisurely made our way out of the City to our “country estate” in the Catskills, to visit my aunt and uncle on their sprawling farmstead in the Delaware River valley. There are few places I love more on this Earth than that piece of land and the people who live there. When we lost our parents, this place really became the word for home on my lips. On the way out we stopped for some fantastic bagels.  

SpreadsFish and
Tal Bagels, Bagel Spreads, Lox and stuff!,

We got in just in time to be swept up in a Christmas party with an amazing spread, so the rest of the day quickly blurred. The next morning we caught up with family and friends and toured my uncle’s massive new solar array. Between the conservation easements and other watershed landowner programs they are involved with, and this solar array, I do believe that my aunt and uncle are about the most progressive farmstead I know of[ix].  We spent a wonderful Christmas Eve and Christmas morning with them, including a wild romp through the countryside to surprise friends with carols lead by an Israeli Santa Claus[x].

Best Bread
DecorChristmas Tree
Party!, Peacocks, Best Bread Ever[xi], Solar Array, Solar Array, Rama Christmas Décor, Christmas Tree, Israeli Santa

Kate and I reluctantly bid everyone goodbye and made our way across the state to Rochester to see her family. I had intended to only be there a day, to celebrate Christmas with them, and then leave on the 26th. A massive blizzard had other ideas, and I was stranded there for three more days. Given the incredible workload I had to wade through, I ended up secluding myself in a room and coming down for meals. I felt absolutely horrible about it, especially after getting some fantastic gifts, including a restored late 1800’s banjo from my father in law.

Awesome Christmas Gift -
Antique Dobson Victor Professional Banjo
Restored Dobson Victor Professional Banjo

It was all a mad rush, but work notwithstanding, was still a good holiday. Next time, I don’t care how much I need to do...I’m bringing the camera.


[i] This taught me many lessons. Primary among them was that my smartphone camera is pretty horrible.
[ii] Houston is more like LA, in a great big hurry to forget whatever meager history it has.
[iii] The High Line is a linear park built on a former elevated train line. This is the stuff urban planners dream about.
[iv] I would expect a sign like this to say Watch FOR Children or even Watch, Children.  Stating “Watch Children” seems like a creepy imperative to stare at kids.
[v] Things like Bufflehead ducks, Northern Flicker Woodpeckers, and New Jersians.
[vi] Though pretty gneiss, actually, if you got to see some cleavage. Ah, poorly wielded geology humor.
[vii] Others must have thought so to, because the same location became the setting for an unbearably schmaltzy scene in a recent Christmas episode of Glee.
[viii] Mostly because Book of Mormon, etc, were sold out.
[ix] They are pretty impressive folks in general.
[x] Some family friends we look forward to seeing each year were not going to be able to make it out while we were there. So we brought the party to them. Imagine, if you will, hearing a knock on your door, and opening it to see an swarthy Israeli (my brother in law Shoham) dressed as Santa Claus, asking to see your wife, and then to have friends jump out of bushes singing Christmas carols. In military terms I believe this is called “shock and awe”.  There was red wine involved.
[xi] My Aunt Merry is one of the most stylish people I know. She sent my cousin Mike out to get some items for the party and he brought back a massive bread-sculpture thing in the shape of a snowman he was immensely proud of. I could see the war between maternal devotion and