Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Fly the Naked Skies

Isn't this the perfect moment in history to start a nudist airline? Just thinking out loud, here...


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Note on Methland 
Methland: The Death and Life of An American Small Town by Nick Redding

An excellent piece of book-length reporting--it combines small personal stories with a large historical narrative and big theories to explain it all. The pharmaceutical industry is one of the surprise villains here (because of their long and somewhat successful attempt to keep the U.S from regulating ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, two of the basic chemicals from which methamphetamine is manufactured), as are NARCS (the National Association of Retail Chain Stores), but the biggest villains are the big agribusinesses like Archer Daniels Midland, ConAgra, Tyson, etc. Redding blames them for consolidating the ag industries and turning what had once been $18/hour meat processing jobs (for example) into minimum wage jobs held by illegal aliens (who were recruited by the ag giants). This devastated small town America and inadvertantly provided a distribution system (dealers were workers at the local meat processing plant). He doesn't blame illegal aliens in general for being here, as he writes at one point, "if you encourage people to come to your country, you cannot then hold it against them for showing up."

There are also stories--sometimes heartbreaking and often astonishing--of the tweakers, smurfs, beavis and butthead lab operators, etc. The notion that at one time, small-scale meth manufacturers were riding around cooking meth in 20 oz soda bottles strapped to the backs of their mountain bikes is amazing. But in one small Iowa town, this practice was so pervasive, they actually considered outlawing bikes! I am generally a libertarian about drugs, feeling that legalizing would end many of the most pernicious effects of the illicit drug trade. But this is the glib assessment of someone who is comfortably isolated from the worst effects. After reading a book like this, the thought of legalizing meth is utterly terrifying. But weirdly enough, meth isn't the problem--it just happens to be the horrific (yet perversely All-American) drug that rushed in to fill the void left when a way of life died. If it hadn't been meth, it would have been something else.

Labels: ,

Monday, December 28, 2009

A Note on Zhivago's Children 
Zhivago's Children by Vladislav Zubok.

I have always been interested in the artistic and intellectual life of the Soviet Union, but most of what you read deals with the brief period of openness at the beginning of the revolution and then the tragic reversal under Stalin. Those stories are almost unbearable, and perhaps that's why I'm drawn to them. Also, the art and literature of that period is really powerful. But what happened after Stalin died, and particularly after Khrushchev's "secret speech," in which he discussed Stalin's crimes? That's what this book deals with.

Because it deals with the intelligentsia as a whole over a long period (basically from 1953 until the 1990s), there is a blizzard of names to contend with. The book is told in more-or-less chronological order, so the same intellectuals pop up at various points of the book. Like Orlando Figes's books The Whisperers and Natasha's Dance, it's hard to keep track of all the characters. Zhivago's Children would have benefited from an appendix that simply listed the main players and what they did. As it is, I have turned down hundred's of pages where I want to dig a little deeper into the work of the personages who are mentioned here.

The book mainly deals with generation that was too young to fight in World War II. They went to university in far greater numbers than any previous generation of Russians, and while they were there, they were learning bowdlerized and corrupt course studies (part of the book deals with the way younger scientists stamped out hackish anti-science like Lysenkoism and the belief that quantum physics was "bourgeois"). But college isn't just a bunch of people sitting in classes learning propaganda. It's a venue for young minds to get together, and that's what happened.

We see their hopes rise in the "Thaw" under Khrushchev, only to be dashed in part because of Khrushchev's personal inability to appreciate art and literature (Stalin, weirdly enough, had much more sophisticated tastes), and ultimately by Khruschev's failure as a leader and his replacement by more Stalinist leaders (although none that followed Khruschev were nearly as murderous as Stalin). The "Thaw" saw the rise of samizdat (self-published magazines). We learn about the "stiliagi" or "style-apers" who loved Jazz and Western fashions. The government were alarmed by the styliagi, who were the first manifestation of dissatisfaction from this new generation. One response was to mock them in Krokodil, the satirical magazine--which, of course, just spread the news! (It's funny how youth fashions so disliked by elders are spread this way, no matter what country. I wonder how many kids got into punk rock after seeing the notorious anti-punk episodes of  CHiPs and Quincy.)

These kids were still operating in an almost totally closed society, but Khrushchev started doing cultural exchanges--which brought a huge increase in contacts with the world. Not just the U.S. and Western Europe (which were certainly important) but also third world countries and perhaps most important, Eastern European countries. Zubok describes a period of cultural exchange that was exciting. Suddenly jazz was OK, and there were exhibits of modern art. It was at one of those exhibits that the "Thaw" started to end--Khrushchev attended an exhibit of abstract painters and didn't understand what he was seeing. He called the artists "faggots" and thought it was a fraud on the Soviet people. The intelligentsia were perplexed--Khrushchev, after all, had just permitted the publication of Solzhenitsyn's searing One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. But it was a class thing--Solzhenitsyn's book was understandable and featured a peasant protagonist. To Khrushchev, these artists seem like a bunch of spoiled city boys putting on airs.

Those who came forward in the Thaw either made some kind of accommodation with the government, perhaps still with hopes of reforming it from within, or became dissidents. The human rights movement arose after the arrests and convictions of Andrei Siniavsky and Yuli Daniel in 1965. These writers had been publishing stories abroad under pseudonyms--stories that even with the thaw would not have been permitted within the Soviet Union. Supporters of the pair had come to the conclusion that violent revolution was not only impossible, but degrading. (For them, Stalinism is what happens when you win through revolution.) So armed with Soviet law (which guaranteed certain rights, even if they were not actually observed), they started doing public protests. And amazingly, they were sometimes successful. (They got Daniel and Siniavsky's trials made public, even though the two were found guilty.)

But the dissident intellectuals, as heroic as they were, were not able to do much. The government made cynical deals with them. For example, they allowed increases in Jewish emigration in the 1970s. This was, indeed, an improvement in a basic human right, but at the same time allowed the government to siphon off troublesome people, and allowed them to imply that Jews weren't patriotic, weren't "real" Russians. (A theme in the latter half of the book is the rise of the antisemitic Right in Russia.)

What finally had to happen was for a solid insider, Gorbachev, to take power and deliberately attempt a "Prague Spring" for the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union collapsed, and the intelligentsia pretty much died with it. This is a surprisingly little-known earthquake in European intellectual histoty, and this book really does a great service by reminding us what happened. The painful, compromised history of this small and admittedly somewhat priviledged group is powerful reading.

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Secret History of Houston's Gay Mayors

Turns out that almost all of them were gay.

Labels: ,

Friday, December 18, 2009


Hell would be living in a city of 216,000 souls with no bookstore. That is what Laredo is about to become.

(If it's any consolation, literate Laredans who know Spanish can always cross the border to Nuevo Laredo--which has nine bookstores.)


Monday, December 14, 2009

Robert W. Boyd, Outdoorsman and High School Teacher

One of the slightly spooky things about having your own name on Google Alerts is that items like this occasionally pop up.
HOLDERNESS -- Robert W. Boyd, 68, died Nov. 12, 2009, at his residence.
He born in Danvers, Mass., to Robert W. and Delia Cecile (Langlais) Boyd. He graduated from Salem State.
After several years of teaching high school in Danvers and Peabody, Mass., as well as serving on the Danvers Police Dept., he moved to Alaska where he spent 22 years teaching in Bethel schools and in outlying fishing villages.
A lifelong outdoorsman, he enjoyed hunting, fishing, trapping and all that Alaska had to offer.
Upon retiring to New Hampshire in 2004, he pursued gardening, as well as raising poultry and livestock. (Union Leader, November 17, 2009)

I raise a glass to you, Robert W. Boyd! I am happy to note that he is survived by several family members, including a son named . . . Robert W. Boyd.


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Taxonomy of Conservatives

Waggish has determined six categories of conservative, three classic conservative types, and three degenerate types. The utility of his categories is limited. He writes,
Since "conservatism" has had such bizarre associations in the United States for a long time now, I thought I'd give brief accounts of the three breeds that I most often think of in connection with the classical sense of conservative (that is, the sense that still has something to do with the meaning of the word).
With that caveat, though, I think these are pretty good ways to think about conservatives--and funny (if you like your laffs extra-dry). I'd like (but dread) the same taxonomical look at liberals.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Sig Byrd Comics

No, as far as I know Sig Byrd never did comics (unlike other Houston daily newspaper columnists Lynn Ashby and Jeff Millar). But Scott Gilbert adapted one of Byrd's tales. You can read it here.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Sig Byrd's Houston

Sig Byrd
A recent article in The Houston Press reminded me that I needed to check out Sig Byrd's Houston. So I went on Alibris and bought myself the cheapest copy available, and sat myself down for a read. It was enthralling. Byrd was a newspaper columnist whose column, "The Stroller" was filled with street stories, mainly from neighborhoods where polite white folk rarely went. I'm sure reading it gave them an somewhat forbidden thrill, just as it does for me more than 50 years later. He chronicled the stories of Houston's black and Mexican population, as well as the demimonde of hookers, hustlers, junkies, dealers, bar-flies, beggars, street-corner preachers and honky tonk angels. These columns appeared in The Houston Press--the old daily newspaper, not the current-day weekly--in the 40s and 50s.

A lot has been written about Byrd. The modern Houston Press reveres him and wrote a detailed biography of Byrd, who was evidently a fairly prickly customer. Leon Hale was a colleague and similarly wrote stories about folks who generally weren't all that newsworthy--Hale's were more rural and gentle than Byrd's--and Hale wrote a great column about Byrd when Byrd died. And the record store, Sig's Lagoon, is a double tribute to the man--"Sig" for the man, and "lagoon," a term that Byrd recorded in his column that was used by the 5th Ward boogie-woogie boys to mean "cool."

For a book that has been out of print for decades (and will cost you a pretty penny online), Sig Byrd's Houston has its devotees. They tend to be hipsters with an interest in Houston history--mostly male as far as I can tell, many who are writers mining some of the same ground as Byrd did back in the day. People like John Nova Lomax, Alex Wukman, the owners of Sig's Lagoon, Scott Gilbert, and me.

Each chapter collects a group of columns and is centered around a specific geographic region. Congress Avenue starts off the book. Think of Congress Ave. today--one one side of Main it's all courts and criminal justice-related buildings and businesses. On the other side--some nice old bars like La Carafe and Warren's. I guess it wasn't all that long ago that it was still a pretty seedy street. But in Byrd's time, it was a place of hookers and junkies, like the pill-head protagonist of his first story, Twitchy Tess. Another story tells of the mechanics of how the drug deals on Preston went down., with a man with a scar on his face leaving the reds, yellows and dexxies under certain carpets in open doorways and picking up money from those carpets later. The next chapter is about the 2nd Ward, or "segundo barrio" as it was called. Then as now is was a largely Mexican American neighborhood. One story tells of Chento, a 20-year old veteran of Huntsville with a tattoo of a cross between his eyes and the letters H A T E tattooed on his knuckles (but not L O V E). But then Chento fell in love with Belen, a nice girl who would have nothing to do with a tattooed pachuco. So Van Gogh-style, he uses his knife to cut the cross and the letter E off--before he passes out from loss of blood. Belen witnesses this, screaming. And by the time Chento told Byrd this story, the scars were almost healed and he was walking around with H A T on his knuckles.

If you go to the 400 block of Milam today, one one side there is a multistorey parking garage, and on the other side is a parking lot. Back in Byrd's day, it was "Catfish Reef."
The Reef is bi-racial. The light and dark meet here. Generally speaking, the odd numbers, on the east side, are dark, the even numbers light; but the exception proves the rule.
You can buy practically anything here. Whisky, gin, wine, beer, a one-hundred-and fifty-dollar suit [about $1200 today, according to the BLS], firearms, a four-bit flop, a diamond bracelet that will look equally good on the arms of a chaste woman or a fun-gal. You can buy fried catfish on Catfish Reef. You can buy reefers on the Reef.
The Catfish Reef chapter has several stories about music in Houston; for instance, young boogie-woogie players recording at Martin Nelson's photo, recording and shoeshine parlor. He also uses these columns to try his hand at a little bit of black hipster dialect, such as in this sequence where Gafftop Powell, who has found a diamond ring on the floor of a dancehall, takes it into Marv Bernhard's jewelry store. to be appraised. Bernhard looks at it with his loupe and declares it worthless.
"This," he said, holding out the ring, "is one hundred percent fertilizer." ["fertilizer" is one of Byrd's many humorous euphemisms for more earthy phrases--these columns were written for a family newspaper, after all.]

"Well, I ain't gona lose my cool over it," said Gafftop, taking the ring. "I found it on the floor at the gloss house."

"You might win the favors of an idle fun-gal on an off-night with that," said Mr. Bernhard. "But in cash money, I wouldn't give you a rough for it."

"I ought to have knowed," said Gafftop, looking down at the circlet of rhinestones. "These-here rocks is too big. [...] Do you rebop, Mr. Marv?"

"I rebop," said the jeweler. "When easy rocks come too big, or the big rocks come to easy, they won't get you two. Look, I'll show you the difference."

From his wallet, Mr. Bernhard took an envelope, from the envelope a pill of lovely blue ice, the kind that doesn't defrost, even from its own red, white, and blue fire.

"Lagoo-oo-oon!" said Gafftop, his eyes as big and round and white as hundred-watt globes.
Byrd tells a number of stories set in the rough waterfront dives on 75th Street (aka "Six-Bit Street") north of Canal. There we get tales of foreign sailors, old Wobblies, and the hookers in tight jeans who would sit next to the sailormen at the bars. The corner of Hill and Lyons was known as "Pearl Harbor" for its violence--it was in the middle of the Fifth Ward, also known as the "Bloody Fifth." One of the best stories there is the one about the sorrowful Handsome Easley--released from jail on parole, his most beloved hobby was acting as an unpaid roadie for the jazz acts that came through town. He had been looking forward to handling the Duke's instruments--Duke Ellington would soon be playing in Houston. But Handsome was about to be taken back to prison for breaking parole by drinking beer with a hooker in a bar.  But the story has an unexpected denouement:
Handsome was at the City Auditorium, unpacking the Duke's instruments, like he'd always done. The Board of Pardons must have read that story about Handsome, because they had given him a full pardon just in time to let him be with the Duke and Johnny Hodges and the other musicians when they got to town.
This bit comes from a record store conversation about the inventor of boogie, Pine Top Smith, and his death by being stabbed in the back (while playing piano) in a Galveston night club. Others disagreed and said he was shot in Chicago. (For the record, that's what Wikipedia says as well.) Of course, the point was not the facts but the discussion among enthusiasts, killing time at the record store.

There's lots more here. Sig Byrd's Houston is a rich collection of muscular, unjudgmental writing about what was, for most Houstonians (and presumably for most readers of the old Houston Press) a fairly invisible part of their city.

One simply cannot imagine someone writing feuillitons like this for the Houston Chronicle today. First of all, the Chron wouldn't dare write about criminals with the casual sympathy that Byrd shows (he shows it by telling their stories straightforwardly). Addicts and prostitutes are to be condemned or pitied, but are not to be given voice.

Also, the circumstances were different then. There were three daily papers in Houston, all competing for the same pool of readers--generally a broader pool than what we have today. The Press, as the underdog, had to distinguish itself. If Byrd's earthy urban tales were not to some readers' tastes, well, the Press probably didn't have those readers in the first place.

The modern Houston Press carries on some of the old Byrd tradition, but Houston could really profit from something like "The Stroller" again.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, December 04, 2009

Ultra-Rich Crybaby Threatens Kinkaid, Embarrasses Self, Family

As some of you may know, I went to Memorial High School (class of 81, baby!). Now in sports we had rivalries (for example, we were rivals of the now defunct Westchester High School). That shit was never important to me, though. For me, our real rivals were St. John's and Kinkaid--those were the schools we were always competing with academically. I always was checking out who had more National Merit Semifinalists, who won more trophies at math contests (yes, I entered those as a high schooler), etc.

Twenty-seven years later, I still notice when Kindaid makes the news, as in this post on Dealbreaker.
Hugh “Skip” McGee III is not happy. The former Lehman Brothers head of investment banking/current Barclays employee of the same title is specifically not happy with the hippies at The Kinkaid School. You see, kids, The Kinkaid School is an institution Skippy spends good money to send his children to and lately? The commune seems to be poisoning the McGees’ minds in a dangerous way. And to be honest, Skip has had it. He’s held his tongue ‘til now but not anymore. So what’s going to happen, is Skip is going to sit down and lose his shit in a letter to the school, demanding the dismissal of a whole buncha personnel, and come seriously close to giving himself a hernia. You wanna know why? Skip’s got three reasons:
1. The school made a bunch of high school boys very upset (not just upset, “humiliated”) when it wouldn’t let them dress in drag for a pep rally.
2. Something about “a gay female coach” (Skip’s original draft: “fucking dyke”) who The Skipper wants fired.
3. (The pièce de résistance:) History teacher Leslie Lovett should also be fired because she injects her ‘leftist invective’ in the curriculum and said mean, hurtful things about investment bankers, particularly those working for Lehman and Barclays, and made Skippy’s son cry. Luckily, Skip Jr. wiped his eyes, stood up to Ms. Lovett and said, you are wrong about my dad! He wanted to save Lehman. He wanted to save Lehman so bad!
Whoa! Read the whole thing.This teacher may have been unfair to investment bankers, but Skip McGee didn't do them any favors with this letter. Hoo-hah!

Labels: , , ,

Here's A Company I Wish I Could Short

For the past hundred years, the science of oil and gas exploration has gotten better and better. Seismic techniques have steadily improved, as have wireline technologies. Geologists and geophysicists know more about the Earth than ever. But they all neglected one important thing--the Bible. That's how Zion Oil and Gas hopes to find oil in Israel.

Who needs science when you have Jehovah?

Labels: , ,

To Commit the Perfect Crime You Need a Perfect Victim

A police report said the 21-year-old Denton woman answered a knock at her door by someone who claimed he was doing field work for a massage class.
She let the man into her apartment and allowed him to massage her, but became suspicious when he asked her to keep taking off more clothes Monday.
Police say the woman finally got the man to leave, but not before he asked her to go on a date.
She declined.
She called the massage school and was told the man was not enrolled. She then called police. (The Houston Chronicle, 12/3/09)

I really don't have anything to add to this nearly perfect piece of journalism.

Labels: ,