Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Signs across Texas

   Some things change. Some things, never.

   Evidence thereof was great during a motorized spring swing through a great and greening state.

    The Panhandle city of Hartley — Population: 1 grain silo — has not changed one granule since I was a child sleeping in the back of the station wagon. My parents had removed the inside door handles so that in our wrestling, we three sons would not eject ourselves out into the cactus.

    The state-line city of Texline has changed, of a sort. A well-used and much-coveted convenience store right across from the red sandstone state marker is gone, and with it the curio shop of my childhood dreams.

    A house trailer roughly at the same spot — the first residence south of the state line — burned to the ground some time ago. There it remains. First impressions being what they are, the Texline Chamber of Commerce ought to demand a cleanup. If not, let us request that the Texas Legislature do something. Oops. An oxymoron.

   "Do-nothing Texas Legislature" has been a redundancy for a decade.

    Driving across the state, one wonders if Texas is moving at a brisk pace or is like a Geiser steam tractor trudging on the road's shoulder. It will get there when it gets there.

   Hey, things do happen. North of Lubbock is a brand new — OK, two years old — two-screen drive-in movie theater. The Stars and Stripes Drive-In has first-run movies, swing sets and all.

   And that's not all that's new.

   We noticed that counties had new signs identifying themselves. That's progress. I now know that Dumas is in Moore County and Hereford is in Deaf Smith.

    "You know you've made one trip too many when you remark on new signs on the highway," said my wife.

     Some signs were old standbys, like "Watch for ICE on bridge" we saw deployed everywhere. I always wondered about that. Knowing Texas drivers, the last thing you want is to raise their fear quotient to Level Orange about icy roads. Indeed, at the mere mention of snow, Texans will sweep every digestible item off every store shelf and wage hand-to-hand battles over spare kerosene (even if they have no means of using it). Then, it won't snow.

    You don't see "Watch for ICE on bridge" signs in states that actually have ICE. But at least in Texas people are watching.

     There's also the highway sign that warns of water on the road when it rains. Go figure.

      On our March trip, what we needed most of the time was advisories about wind — like every step of the way.

       Pursuant, and in probably the most striking indicator of change, giant wind generators by the thousands were turning, churning, and presumably making clean electricity.

        My wife is not so sure. She thinks this may be a big scam.

        After seeing waves and waves of the colossal one-legged, four-armed creatures in Scurry County, followed a few miles to the north by a pale army in Garza County waving in the neighbors' southward direction, she deduced that this wasn't about harvesting wind.

      "Those are giant fans. They blow the wind that turns the ones in the next county."

       Powering the fans? Oil, most certainly.

       That Boone Pickens is one smart man.

        Did I say greening? Well, whether or not its leaders are truly enviro-green, Texas is one blushing babe this time of the year, with more chlorophyl than a sea of breath mints.

        We're glad to report that though some visionary types in the Capitol will surely try as they have over the decades, no one has figured out a way to destroy the state's natural charms in commerce's name.

       What was true once from the back of the station wagon remains true now from behind the wheel: "No place like Texas."

         John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. Email:

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The canards of March

    Canard — n. (etymology: French for duck) a fake or unfounded report or story, especially: a fabricated report; a groundless rumor or belief.

    "They crammed health care reform down our throats."

     Yes. Barack Obama, Joe Biden and a decisive majority of Democrats ran for office on health care reform. They secured the White House and an overwhelming majority in Congress on the pledge to reform health care. They debated it for months. They made compromises and deals. Despite the minority's furious effort to obstruct, they got something done that they campaigned to do.

     One person's idea of cramming down throats is another's idea of representative democracy.

      "Health care isn't a right. It's a privilege."

      The protester, a misspelled placard in hand that features Obama in a Hitler 'stache, is headed to be with his Tea Party kin. Distracted by the horrific state of affairs across the land that once was his, he is run over by a street sweeper.

       Either: (a) He will pull his mangled body with every ounce of sinew left in his own bloody elbows to the nearest hospital for care; (b) A privately operated ambulance will mosey up and offer transportation to the hospital if he can present an insurance card that it honors; (c) An ambulance will show up in seconds, ask only about his vital signs, and not assume that any brain injuries are a pre-existing condition. (Answer: c)

      At the emergency room and in intensive care: the same. Insurance or no, society — you and I — through higher hospital costs and fees and other assumed costs, including taxes, will do whatever it can to save the protester's life. If he has insurance, the frantic emergency care to put the saving of his life above all other considerations will drive up the cost of your health care and mine.

      "It'll drive up the deficit."

      We know that our government tends to spend wildly without a means of paying for what it does, like invading and occupying two countries while cutting taxes, like snaking through a Medicare prescription drug benefit that was roughly half a trillion dollars more expensive than its authors knew but didn't admit at the time. One difference here: In this case the government is actually trying to pay for some of what it spends. For one thing, in 2011, the Medicare payroll tax will increase from 1.45 percent to 2.35 percent for individuals earning more than $200,000 and married filing jointly above $250,000. 

     "It will cause our economy to collapse."

      Yes, it will, just as opponents of a tax hike on the wealthy warned it would during the Clinton administration. A "one-way ticket to a recession," said Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas. As soon as his party claimed the White House after two terms of unrivaled prosperity under Clinton, and had two terms of its own, it it made Gramm a prophet.

     "Americans oppose this. Fox News says so."

     Tuesday's Gallup Poll found that 49 percent of respondents were glad Congress acted, while 40 percent said they didn't.

      "The Democrats will pay a political price for this."

      Well, it's true that people often play a political price for doing something in Washington. Rarely do they pay a price for doing nothing, save for cozying up to industry and the people who have all of their needs met. Little political gain is to be had for representing society's marginalized or shifting the status quo so much as an inch.

     Shifts of that sort happened after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Decades of recrimination followed. Then again, marginalized people weren't so marginal anymore. Indeed, they had, they have, actual power. It's just what the recriminators feared.

    In the case of health care, someday the offspring of working Americans left to hang in the winds by do-nothing, backsliding politicians will stand up for the kinds of policies that delivered their parents from one of life's biggest dilemmas: to eat or to get a checkup.

      No wonder some people fear it so.

     John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. Email:

Sunday, March 21, 2010

I've just seen my legs

  This all has to do with blue jeans, and white legs.

   I didn't wear blue jeans much in 25 years in Texas. Most of the time during recreational hours, I wore shorts.

   If it was long-pants weather — and, let's face it; with global changes, many Texans had forgotten what a winter feels like until this one came along — I would strap on sweat pants. My jeans hung forlornly in the closet, trappings of another life in a colder place.

   Then, this fall we moved back to my home state of Colorado. Suddenly, it was blue jeans weather, every day. The brown cargo shorts worn so faithfully at another latitude leeched from the top of my fun-wear drawer into its depths, to mingle among the free T-shirts from the blood bank.

   I also took to wearing pajama bottoms around the house when the blue jeans were getting a rest. No more open-air gym shorts from high school: too open-air for Rocky Mountain air.

   And so I was completely unprepared for the shock this week when, going out on a beautiful almost-spring day to bat around tennis balls with my son, I saw my legs.

   Yes, they were white. White as toothpaste out of the tube. White as a Republican caucus.

   My legs had come to Colorado caramelized like those of any good Texan. They are now vanilla almond bark.  

   I was reminded of days of yore when summer would arrive and we Colorado kids would strive to avoid sock tan lines on our too-pale legs when we bared them for summer sun. So, we choose not to wear socks.

   With the almost year-round solar exposure of their legs, Texans have no such concern. I certainly didn't while living there.

  All of this might sound like a complaint about the weather conditions I now experience. It is not. First off, I enjoy wearing jeans again. I also enjoy snow, something I don't recall doing back in that other life in Colorado. Key to enjoying snow and cold is good shoes. I lived in Colorado for almost 30 years without good shoes. Now I have great shoes: great waffle-stomping boots. They insulate my toes in all conditions.

    Snow has much to offer in ways I did not appreciate as a younger man. It causes vehicles to move more slowly. It enforces solemnity across the land. It is soft and white. It delivers needed moisture. It insulates and waters lawns.

     A dimension to this newfound appreciation for frozen precipitation is that back when I hated it, I was a single man who put a premium on mobility, of which snow is an enemy unless you're on slats. Now I'm a married man with a great family, and I choose domestic tranquility over my mobility.

    March in Texas, I assert from experience, is the best month of the year. It is mild and warm. It is green. The wildflowers start to spring to life.

    The March I remember in Colorado was the worst month of the year. It was cold and windy. Statistically, it is the snowiest month here.

    The day after our tennis outing and the baring of my legs, the TV announced a winter storm warning. Sure enough, an icy front slid our way down through Wyoming. Right now, it's white out there, as white as my legs.

    I can handle both gladly. But the next time I'm in Texas, I'm wearing sweat pants.

    John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. Email:




Thursday, March 18, 2010

College: More than numbers game

  My college-grad son got exactly what I hoped he would out of his higher education — meaning it had almost nothing to do with a career.

  Oh, sure, I would have been thrilled if after that fireworks-filled graduation night at the base of the University of Texas tower he exchanged his black robe for a job that gratified and enriched him.

  But college meant so much more than that for me, and for him. How would his education affect the GDP and our competitiveness with the Chinese? We have yet to see.

  In addition to his classes, he was engaged in a whole lot on campus — indeed, so much that he never had the time or inclination to attend so much as one UT sporting event.

   So many people, particularly policymakers, look at college as a linear exercise: X number of credits equals career readiness. A UT task force recently recommended limiting the pursuit of a bachelor's degree to 10 semesters — five years. Such a bottom-line fixation fails to acknowledge changes of direction in inquiry and interest, not to mention work demands that students face to pay for college.

    Therefore, it's encouraging when you see approaches to make the most out of college education, rather than trying to prime the conveyor belt to get students out in the least amount of time.

    An example of this at UT is taking place in the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement with an exciting initiative called Intellectual Entrepreneurship.

     We all know what entrepreneurship is about: profit. This UT program, under the direction of Richard Cherwitz, is about the profit to society in producing citizen-scholars. Basically, it's a host of ways to "demystify education" and get students to branch out from what they're studying to find ways to engage in the community, or across disciplines.

      On feature under the program that's getting national attention is UT's Pre-Graduate School Internship. It pairs graduate students with undergraduates, most of whom come from under-represented populations. The objective: to help the undergrads conceptualize and plan for post-graduate degrees. Last school year it involved more than 200 undergraduates. 

     It is always useful to think of the social ripple effect to come when one person from a family that never knew higher education gets a college degree. Consider the ripples, then, if one of them chooses law school, medical school or other post-graduate pursuits.

   But the same kinds of stigma and mystiques that keep some students from going to college apply to grad school, not to mention foreboding finances. That's why such a mentoring arrangement is invaluable.

    In contrast to those who want to distill education to test scores or minimizing contact hours, hear the plea of UT sophomore Cameron Ingram, praising the Intellectual Entrepreneurship program in a commentary in the Daily Texan: "With looming budget cuts and tuition hikes, maybe interest should be focused more on making students' dollars go further, and less on turnover."

      To  Cherwitz's way of thinking, this means showing students how " 'research'(thought and reflection) and 'engagement' (action) do not inherently constitute an either/or."

     My son got more than thought and reflection out of his (five) rewarding college years, and far more than the two bachelor's degrees he earned. He got a sense of himself and a thirst for knowledge.

     After four years loving Austin as a non-student and thinking about what else he wants to do, he recently was accepted to the UT School of Social Work. Making that leap wasn't too daunting for him, in part because of his influences at home, and in part because of friends already in graduate school. But imagine someone whose parents never graduated from high school and never dreamed of college. Graduate school?

    Let's hope no one is rushed out the door at a great school before he or she gets a sense of greatness yet to be achieved.

    John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. Email:



Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Hope in state of ignorance

      Parsing his vote for Rick Perry in the primary, one Republican told a reporter the message was to "let Texas be Texas."


      Texas, where he who panders hardest to the hard right wins the privilege of governing all.

      Texas, where a politician who led Aggie cheers can be the state's arbiter on global warming, as opposed to, say, alarmed A&M scientists who study it every day.

      Texas, where one-third of respondents in a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll say that man co-existed with dinosaurs, and where 51 percent reject the theory of evolution.

       Texas, where a majority on the state school board is more dedicated to evangelizing its own world views than sharing with students what the weight of science says on either matter.

        Texas, frozen in political amber, or some sticky stuff that retards motion, ultimately cementing one in place.

         That was a curious statement last month from Perry when he, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and Attorney General Greg Abbott said the state would sue to block the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate greenhouse gases relative to their effect on our health.

      Perry said the EPA was interfering with Texas' "freedom to continue our successful environmental strategies." Beg pardon, Governor: But if the EPA is wrong and these pollutants are no threat, why even give "environmental strategies" lip service? Stop pretending. Combustion is our most important product.

       OK. So, pursuant to the only primary that matters, Texas consigns itself to another four years of pandering to the basest of its instincts, the lowest of its common denominators. Yes? Well, maybe not.

      Indicators from the primary give people who wish for something else a few glimmers of hope.

       Consider that voters ousted the devoted creationist who once headed the State Board of Education, Don McLeroy of Bryan. The victor, Thomas Ratliff, is the son of a man who embodies something once considered dino-extinct: the moderate Republican. That would be former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff.

    Elsewhere, forces of moderation turned back an effort that harked back to how creationists and homeschoolers schemed and slimed their way onto the state school board in the 1990s. Moderate GOP Lubbock incumbent Bob Craig won re-election despite character attacks by a steaming tea kettle of righteous fury named Randy Rives. Rives advertised that he had tape of his opponent consulting at a school board meeting with, get this: the president of Texans for Sound Science.

     Imagine that. Consulting with science practitioners.

     Not only that, but Rives said Craig canoodled with groups friendly with groups like Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign, "the largest homosexual organization in the country."

    How can such an appeal not be gold in a state of ignorance? Gov. Rick, haven't you shown your political brethren the way?

     Don't look now, but Democrats have fielded their most viable candidate for governor in a decade with former Houston Mayor Bill White. Don't look now, but the Legislature teeters in ways that could undo Republican hegemony. Don't look now, but for the next century, make that two or five, demography is increasingly not on the side of the majority party under today's Capitol dome.

     Texas never stopped being the state of Johnson, Rayburn, Yarborough, Richards, Hobby, Bentsen, Gonzales, Cisneros, Jordan and Farenthold and, oh, yes, Ratliff. It just stopped imagining what sort of Texas that could be.

      John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. Email:

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The overly dramatic death of Hummer

  In the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? we see auto companies pry prototype vehicles, literally, from drivers' loving fingers.

  We see the vehicles crushed, and not allowed to return to run free — pollution-free — on the landscape.

    We see General Motors sit on a lot of perfectly good electric cars, refusing to sell them to those who want them — $1.9 million worth of them.

    Contrast this with GM's desperate effort to have someone, anyone, preserve the Hummer brand, a car nobody wants.

   Yes, you see them. You can't not see them. They are the biggest pimple on the road.

    But last year, in the whole voracious auto universe, where the average family owns at least two cars, GM sold 9,000 Hummers, down from 27,000 the prior year.

    Considering what else has happened in the auto industry in the last year — dealers doing actual business, (you know, selling cars) one day and shuttered the next — you'd have thought GM would have euthanized that heaving mastodon long ago. What kind of a hint does it need?

     Was this all in a stubborn, Cheney-esqe way, GM's doggedness to press to the end that we can only do things the old way? The low mpg way? The bigger-is-always better way?

     Whatever the corporate illusion, it wasn't until last week, when Chinese heavy-equipment maker Sichuan Tegnzhong Heavy Industrial Machines pulled out of a deal to buy the division, that GM pronounced the Hummer dead.

   Supposedly, this deal fell through because Chinese regulators had trouble with the idea. More likely, this is because as much money as Sichuan Tegnzhong Heavy Industrial Machines might be making, why pour any down a chrome toilet? Who needs that kind of prestige?

   Yes, quite a few Americans did at one odd point in our history. Curiously, it was at a time when Americans were being shipped off to a land where an increasingly precious commodity, oil, made the crushing of a crumbling military dictatorship worth their lives. Yes, we and they were told differently at the time. If, however, Saddam Hussein presided over soybean giant Paraguay, "shock and awe" would have been an "ah, shucks" matter for people signing up to fight, even if their commander later said it was about "freedom on the march" for Paraguayans.

     Some people attributed the rise of the GI-style Hummer as a response to surging military chic for a nation full of itself.  It wasn't about military chic; however, it did correspond with our military adventures. We invaded Paraguay — er, Iraq — because we could. No other national imperative was required. People bought Hummers for the same reason.

     Now, they can't.

     Of course, a market remains for vehicles with the capacity in back for racquetball, and road clearance equal to one-quarter of a mid-sized Patagonian peasant. No matter that at every fill-up the owner pays a month's rent owed by another American.

    I came up with a rationale for these off-road behemoths long ago, and it's a shame that Hummers won't be around to fill it. In the scorched-Earth, futuristic scenario, the owners would drive them across hill and dale, roads not required, until mankind ran out of petroleum. Then when the last drop of gas expired in their giant tanks, their vehicles would provide ample living space for a family of four.

    My son points to the ad for a Hummer that said that drivers would survive a direct asteroid hit. Then he points out that roadside bombs in a far-off land have unfortunately rendered that appeal moot.

    So, the new ad campaign:

    Hummer. Never had a good reason for it.

    John Young writes for Cox Newspapers.